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Foreign Policy In Focus

Foreign Policy In Focus

Analysis of foreign affairs and policy that emphasizes global cooperation and grassroots participation.

Rich Countries Pony Up (Some) for Climate Justice

Drought in China

(Reuters/China Daily)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

It’s one of the oldest tricks in politics: talk down expectations to the point that you can meet them.

And it played out again in Berlin as twenty-one countries—including the United States—pledged nearly $9.5 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a UN body tasked with helping developing countries cope with climate change and transition to clean-energy systems.

The total—which will cover a four-year period before new pledges are made—included $3 billion from the United States, $1.5 billion from Japan and around $1 billion each from the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

That’s a big step in the right direction. But put into context, $9.5 billion quickly sounds less impressive.

Floods, droughts, sea-level rises, heat waves and other forms of extreme weather are likely to cost developing countries hundreds of billions of dollars every year. And it will take hundreds of billions more to ensure that they industrialize more cleanly than their counterparts did in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia.

Developed countries should foot a large part of that bill, since they bear the greatest responsibility for causing climate change.

The Politics of Responsibility

Determining who pays for what is an integral part of achieving an international climate deal. And so far, pledges from rich countries have tracked far behind previous requests and recommendations.

Back in 2009, developed countries signed the Copenhagen Accord, which committed them to move $100 billion per year by 2020 to developing countries. A year later, the UN climate conference in Cancún called for the Green Climate Fund to be set up to channel a “significant share” of the money developing countries need to adapt to climate change.

Earlier this year, the G77—which is actually a grouping of 133 developing countries—called for $15 billion to be put into the Green Climate Fund. UN climate chief Christiana Figueres set the bar lower, at $10 billion. The failure to reach even that figure is likely to put strain on negotiations for a new multilateral climate agreement that is expected to be reached in December 2015.

But it’s not just the headline figure that’s important. Plenty of devils are likely to be lurking in the details.

Delivering on the US pledge requires budgetary approval from a hostile Congress, although a payment schedule stretching over much of the next decade could make that more politically feasible than it initially sounds.

More concerning are the conditions attached to the US pledge, which include a threat that some of the money could be redirected to other funds—likely those run by the World Bank—if “the pace of progress” at the Green Climate Fund is inadequate. Given that the United States is advocating rules on how the fund makes decisions that would tip the balance of power in favor of contributor countries, the threat is far from innocuous.

France will provide a significant proportion of its share as loans rather than grants, while the small print of the UK contribution is likely to reveal that part of its money comes as a “capital contribution,” which can only be paid out as loans.

Those restrictions could limit the scope of activities that the fund can finance, since much of the vital support and infrastructure needed to support community resilience in the face of climate change is too unprofitable to support loan repayments.

Future of the Fund

Looming over these issues is the larger, unresolved question of what the fund will actually finance. Some donor countries—including the United States—are pushing for a fund that would support transnational corporations and their supply chains, helping them turn profits from investments in developing countries.

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Despite its green mandate, the Green Climate Fund may also support an array of “dirty energy” projects—including power generation from fossil fuels, nuclear power and destructive mega-dam projects. That’s the subject of an ongoing dispute on the fund’s twenty-four-member board and a persistent complaint from a range of civil society organizations.

That battle is not yet lost.

Despite its shortcomings, the Green Climate Fund has great potential to support a global transition to renewable energy, sustainable public transport systems and energy efficiency. And with its goal of spending 50 percent of its funds on “adaptation” activities, it could also serve as a vital lifeline for communities already facing the impacts of climate change.

An important milestone was passed with the billions pledged to the Green Climate Fund. But achieving a cleaner, more resilient world will take billions more—along with a commitment to invest the money in projects that mitigate climate change rather than cause it.

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What ‘Free Trade’ Has Done to Central America

Workers in Costa Rica

Garment workers in Costa Rica. (Reuters/Juan Carlos Ulate)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

With Republicans winning big in the midterm elections, the debate over so-called “free trade” agreements could again take center stage in Washington.

President Barack Obama has been angling for “fast track” authority that would enable him to push the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP—a massive trade agreement between the United States and a host of Pacific Rim countries—through Congress with limited debate and no opportunity for amendments.

From the outset, the politicians who support the agreement have overplayed its benefits and underplayed its costs. They seldom note, for example, that the pact would allow corporations to sue governments whose regulations threaten their profits in cases brought before secretive and unaccountable foreign tribunals.

So let’s look closely at the real impact that trade agreements have on people and the environment.

A prime example is the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, or DR-CAFTA. Brokered by the George W. Bush administration and a handful of hemispheric allies, the pact has had a devastating effect on poverty, dislocation and environmental contamination in the region.

And perhaps even worse, it’s diminished the ability of Central American countries to protect their citizens from corporate abuse.

A Premonition

In 2004 and 2005, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled Central America’s streets.

They warned of the unemployment, poverty, hunger, pollution, diminished national sovereignty and other problems that could result if DR-CAFTA were approved. But despite popular pressure, the agreement was ratified in seven countries—including Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and the United States.

Ten years after the approval of DR-CAFTA, we are seeing many of the effects they cautioned about.

Overall economic indicators in the region have been poor, with some governments unable to provide basic services to their population. Farmers have been displaced when they can’t compete with grain imported from the United States. Amid significant levels of unemployment, labor abuses continue. Workers in export-assembly plants often suffer poor working conditions and low wages. And natural-resource extraction has proceeded with few protections for the environment.

Contrary to the promises of US officials—who claimed the agreement would improve Central American economies and thereby reduce undocumented immigration—large numbers of Central Americans have migrated to the United States, as dramatized most recently by the influx of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras crossing the US-Mexican border last summer. Although most are fleeing violence in their countries, there are important economic roots to the migration—many of which are related to DR-CAFTA.

One of the most pernicious features of the agreement is a provision called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism. This allows private corporations to sue governments over alleged violations of a long list of so-called “investor protections.”

The most controversial cases have involved public interest laws and regulations that corporations claim reduce the value of their investments. That means corporations can sue those countries for profits they say they would have made had those regulations not been put into effect.

Such lawsuits can be financially devastating to poor countries that already struggle to provide basic services to their people, much less engage in costly court battles with multinational firms. They can also prevent governments from making democratically accountable decisions in the first place, pushing them to prioritize the interests of transnational corporations over the needs of their citizens.

The Mining Industry Strikes Gold

These perverse incentives have led to environmental deregulation and increased protections for companies, which have contributed to a boom in the toxic mining industry—with gold at the forefront. A stunning 14 percent of Central American territory is now authorized for mining. According to the Center of Research on Trade and Investment, a Salvadoran NGO, that number approaches 30 percent in Honduras and Nicaragua—and rises to a whopping 35 percent in Honduras.

In contrast to their Central American neighbors, El Salvador and Costa Rica have imposed regulations to defend their environments from destructive mining practices. Community pressure to protect the scarce watersheds of El Salvador—which are deeply vulnerable to toxic mining runoff—has so far prevented companies from successfully extracting minerals like gold on a large scale, and the Salvadoran government has put a moratorium on mining. In Costa Rica, after a long campaign of awareness and national mobilization, the legislature voted unanimously in 2010 to prohibit open-pit mining and ban the use of cyanide and mercury in mining activities.

Yet both countries are being punished for heeding their citizens’ demands. Several US and Canadian companies have been using DR-CAFTA’s investor-state provisions to sue these governments directly. Such disputes are arbitrated by secret tribunals like the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, which is hosted by the World Bank and is not accountable to any democratic body.

In 2009, the US-based Commerce Group sued El Salvador for closing a highly polluting mine. The case was dismissed in 2011 for lack of jurisdiction, but El Salvador still had to pay several million dollars in fees for its defense. In a case still in process, the gold-mining conglomerate Pacific Rim has also sued El Salvador under DR-CAFTA for its anti-mining regulations. To get around the fact that the Canadian company wasn’t from a signatory country to DR-CAFTA, it moved its subsidiary from the Cayman Islands to Reno, Nevada, in a bid to use the agreement’s provisions. Although that trick failed, the suit has moved forward under an outdated investment law of El Salvador.

Elsewhere, Infinito Gold has used DR-CAFTA to sue Costa Rica for nearly $100 million over disputes related to gold mining. And the US-based Corona Materials has filed a notice of intent to sue the Dominican Republic, also claiming violations of DR-CAFTA. These costly legal cases can have devastating effects on the national economies of these small countries.

Of course, investor-state disputes under DR-CAFTA are not only related to mining. For example, TECO Guatemala Holdings, a US corporation, alleged in 2009 that Guatemala had wrongfully interfered with its indirect subsidiary’s investment in an electricity distribution company. Specifically, TECO charged that the government had not protected its right to a “minimum standard of treatment”— an exceptionally vague standard that is open to wide interpretation by the international tribunals that rule on such cases—concerning the setting of rates by government regulators. In other words, TECO wanted to charge higher electricity rates to Guatemalan users than those the state deemed fair. Guatemala had to pay $21.1 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in legal fees, above and beyond what it spent on its own defense.

The US-based Railroad Development Corporation also sued Guatemala, leading to the country paying out an additional $11.3 million, as well as covering both its own legal fees and the company’s. Elsewhere, Spence International Investments and other companies sued Costa Rica for its decision to expropriate land for a public ecological park.

A Chilling Effect

What’s at stake here is not only the cost of lawsuits or the impact of environmental destruction, but also the ability of a country to make sovereign decisions and advance the public good.

Investment rules that allow companies to circumvent national judicial systems and challenge responsible public policies can create an effect that’s been dubbed “regulatory chill.” This means that countries that might otherwise have curtailed corporate activity won’t—because they’re afraid of being sued.

Guatemala is a prime case. It’s had to pay companies tens of millions of dollars in investor-state lawsuits, especially in the utility and transportation industries. But it hasn’t yet been sued by a mining company. That’s because the Guatemalan government hasn’t limited the companies’ operations or tampered with their profit-making.

Take the Marlin Mine in western Guatemala, for example. In 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights advised the Guatemalan government to close the mine on account of its social and environmental impacts on the surrounding region and its indigenous population. Nonetheless, after briefly agreeing to suspend operations, the Guatemalan government reopened the mine a short time later.

In internal documents obtained by activists, the Guatemalan government cited potential investment arbitration as a reason to avoid suspending the mine, writing that closing the project could provoke the mine’s owners “to activate the World Bank’s [investment court] or to invocate the clauses of the free trade agreement to have access to international arbitration and subsequent claim of damages to the state.” As this example demonstrates, just knowing that a company could sue can prevent a country from standing up for human rights and environmental protection.

More recently in Guatemala, the communities around San Jose del Golfo—about 45,000 people—have engaged in two years of peaceful resistance to prevent the US-based Kappes, Cassiday, and Associates from constructing a new mine. Protesters estimate that 95 percent of families in the region depend on agriculture, an industry that would be virtually destroyed if the water were to be further contaminated. But the company threatened to sue Guatemala if the mine was not opened. “They can’t afford this lawsuit,” a company representative said. “We had a big law group out of [Washington] DC fire off a letter to the mines minister, copied to the president, explaining what we were doing.”

On May 23, the people of San Jose del Golfo were violently evicted from their lands by military force, pitting the government in league with the company against its own people—potentially all to avoid a costly lawsuit.

A Prelude to the TPP

Warnings about the crises that “free trade” would bring to Central Americans were, unfortunately, correct. Central America is facing a humanitarian crisis that has incited millions to migrate as refugees from violence and poverty, thousands of them children. One push factor is the environmental degradation provoked by ruthless mining corporations that are displacing people from their rural livelihoods.

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And it’s not just DR-CAFTA. The many investor-state cases brought under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and in countries all over the world, have exposed the perniciousness of investor protection rules shoehorned into so-called “free trade” pacts. Many governments are realizing that these agreements have tied their hands when it comes to protecting their own environments and citizens.

We must use these egregious investor-state cases to highlight extreme corporate power in the region. We must work to help Central Americans regain livelihoods lost to ruthless extractive projects like mining. And we must change trade and investment agreements to stop these excessive lawsuits that devastate communities, the environment and democracy itself.

Like DR-CAFTA, the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership includes investor-state provisions that are likely to hurt poor communities and undermine environmental protections. Instead of being “fast tracked” through Congress, future trade agreements like the TPP—and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated between the European Union and the United States—must be subject to a full debate with public input.

And such agreements must not, at any cost, include investor-state mechanisms. Because trading away democracy to transnational corporations is not such a “free trade” after all.

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How Ebola Could End the Cuban Embargo

US and Cuban Flags

(AP/Franklin Reyes)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

When was last time in recent memory a top US official praised Cuba publicly? And since when has Cuba’s leadership offered to cooperate with Americans?

It’s rare for politicians from these two countries to stray from the narratives of suspicion and intransigence that have prevented productive collaboration for over half a century. Yet that’s just what has happened in the last few weeks, as Secretary of State John Kerry and US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke favorably of Cuba’s medical intervention in West Africa, and Cuban President Raúl Castro and former president Fidel Castro signaled their willingness to cooperate with US efforts to stem the epidemic.

As it causes devastation in West Africa and strikes fear in the United States and around the world, Ebola has few upsides. But one of them may be the opportunity to change the nature of US-Cuban relations, for the public good.

Don’t Squander the Opportunity

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel once famously said. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

President Barack Obama should heed his former chief of staff’s advice and not squander the opportunity presented by the Ebola crisis. Political leadership in the White House and the Palace of Revolution could transform a fight against a common threat into joint cooperation that would not only promote the national interests of the two countries but also advance human rights—and the right to health is a human right—throughout the developing world.

Political conditions are ripe for such a turn. Americans strongly support aggressive actions against Ebola and would applaud a president who placed more value on medical cooperation and saving lives than on ideology and resentment.

In the sixth in a series of editorials spelling out the need for a change in US policy toward Cuba, The New York Times called on Obama to discontinue the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program—which makes it relatively simple for Cuban doctors providing medical services abroad to defect to the United States—because of its hostile nature and its negative impact on the populations receiving Cuban doctors’ support and attention in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“It is incongruous for the United States to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy,” the editorial board wrote. The emphasis should be on fostering Cuba’s medical contributions, not stymieing them.

As Cuba’s international health efforts become more widely known, it’s become increasingly clear how unreasonable it is for Washington to assume that all Cuban presence in the developing world is damaging to US interests. A consistent opening for bilateral cooperation with Cuba by governmental health institutions, the private sector and foundations based in the United States can trigger positive synergies to update US policy toward Havana. It will also send a friendlier signal for economic reform and political liberalization in Cuba.

The Whole World Has Something to Gain

The potential for cooperation between Cuba and the United States goes far beyond preventing and defeating Ebola. New pandemics in the near future could endanger the national security, economy and public health of other countries—killing thousands, preventing travel and trade, and choking the current open liberal order by encouraging xenophobic hysteria. At this dramatic time, the White House needs to think with clarity and creativity.

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As the leading nation in the Western Hemisphere, the United States should propose the creation of a comprehensive continental health cooperation and crisis response strategy at the next Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Panama City in April 2015. As numerous Latin American countries have already asserted, Cuba must be included at the summit.

Havana has developed extensive medical expertise at home and abroad, with more than 50,000 doctors and health personnel serving in sixty-six countries. Preventive measures, early detection, strict infection controls and natural disaster crisis response coordination are essential parts of the Cuban approach to nipping pandemics in the bud. The lack of some of these components in already-collapsed health systems explains the failures of governance that inflamed the impact of Ebola in West Africa.

As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama was one of the loudest critics of looking at Cuba through the glasses of the Cold War. As president, it isn’t enough for him to just retune the same embargo policy implemented by his predecessors. He must adjust the official US narrative about post-Fidel Cuba: It is not a threat to the United States but a country in transition to a mixed economy, and a positive force for global health.

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Mexico’s Undead Rise Up

Photos of the missing

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

“Alive they were taken, and alive we want them back!”

That’s become the rallying cry for the forty-three student teachers abducted by municipal police and handed over to the Guerreros Unidos drug gang last September in Iguala, Mexico. None have been seen since.

It remained the rallying cry even after federal officials announced that the missing students had most likely been executed and burned to ashes.

Since then, Argentine forensic experts have concluded that burned remains found in Iguala do not belong to the missing young men—and so the forty-three remain undead. The findings speak to a growing skepticism about the Mexican government’s competence—not only to deliver justice, but also to carry on an investigation with any kind of legitimacy or credibility.

It has become ever clearer that the state is in fact deeply implicated in the violence it claims to oppose. The student teachers were originally attacked by municipal police—allegedly at the orders of Iguala’s mayor and his wife, who were at a function with a local general when the attack took place. Although the exact details of who ordered the attack are not yet clear, the handing over of the student teachers to a violent drug gang betrays a thorough merger of the police force, local officials and organized crime.

This growing realization has ignited rage all over Mexico, with social media campaigns flaring up alongside massive street protests. Peaceful marches happen almost daily in Mexico City, while elsewhere there are starker signs of unrest. Some demonstrators even set fire to government buildings in the Guerrero state capital.

Meanwhile, the government has carried on an increasingly clumsy investigation, first purporting to have found the students in nearby mass graves—as The Nation reports, plenty of mass graves have turned up, but none have yet been proven to contain the missing teachers—and then claiming to have extracted confessions from the alleged killers.

In a November press conference, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam showcased detailed video testimonies from three alleged hit men who claimed to have burned the forty-three at a nearby garbage dump. Parents of the missing went to inspect the alleged site and found evidence lacking. Many doubted that a fire of such magnitude—the supposed killers claimed that they had spent fourteen hours burning the bodies—could have happened, due to the rain of that night.

When Argentine forensic specialists disproved Karam’s narrative, the federal government pledged to “redouble efforts” to find the students. Now President Enrique Peña Nieto is hinting at a conspiracy against his government. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Mexican officials want to put this issue to rest as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the mounting number of mass graves that investigators are turning up serves as a reminder that this kind of violence has been going on for years. Police round up, detain, beat, arrest and shoot at student activists routinely, as when state police shot and killed two Ayotzinapa students during a protest action on the highway in 2011. As with over 90 percent of such crimes in Mexico, no one has been punished. These kinds of killings and disappearances have a long and sordid history as a practice of state violence in Mexico—and particularly in Guerrero—since the so-called Dirty War of the 1970s.

The many discrepancies in Karam’s press conference are feeding into a growing popular refusal to trust the government’s ability to investigate the disappearances independently.

In response to a reporter’s question about whether the parents of the missing believed him, Karam quipped that the parents are people who “make decisions together.” The question was not so much about whether the parents, as individuals, believed or disbelieved Karam’s evidence—although they have since visited the alleged crime scene and reaffirmed their skepticism.

Instead, ordinary Mexicans are increasingly employing their collective intelligence in making sense of the events and refusing to accept the state’s evidence on the grounds that the state itself is compromised. And just as importantly, they’re condemning the government’s silence about its own complicity in the probable execution of their sons.

In their increasing rejection of the Mexican narco-state’s legitimacy, the parents of the missing forty-three are signaling their membership in what anthropologist Guillermo Bonfíl Batalla famously termed México Profundo—that is, the grassroots culture of indigenous Mesoamerican communities and the urban poor, which stands in stark contrast to the “Imaginary Mexico” of the elites. Recalling the Zapatista movement, the rumblings from below in the wake of the mass abduction in Guerrero are merging with older modes of indigenous resistance to give new life to Mexico’s deep tradition of popular struggle.

Bolstered by social media, this new life is expressing itself in a number of colorful ways. Defying the government’s theater of death, artists from all over the world are creating a “Mosaic of Life” by illustrating the faces and names of the disappeared. Mexican Twitter users have embraced the hashtag #YaMeCansé—“I am tired”—to appropriate Karam’s complaint of exhaustion after an hour of responding to questions as an expression of their own rage and resilience.

Gradually, a movement calling itself “43 x 43”—representing the exponential impact of the forty-three disappeared—is rising up to greet the undead, along with the more than 100,000 others killed or disappeared since the start of this drug war in 2006 under former President Felipe Calderón. This refusal of the dead to remain dead made for a particularly poignant Dia de Muertos celebration earlier this month.

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This form of resistance recalls what happened last May in the autonomous Zapatista municipality of El Caracol de la Realidad in the state of Chiapas, where a teacher known as Galeano was murdered by paramilitary forces. At the pre-dawn ceremony held there in Galeano’s honor on May 25, putative Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos announced that he, Marcos, would cease to exist. After Marcos disappeared into the night, the assembled then heard a disembodied voice address them: “Good dawn, compañeras and compañeros. My name is Galeano, Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano. Does anybody else respond to this name?”

In response, hundreds of voices affirmed, “Yes, we are all Galeano!” And so Galeano came back to life collectively, in all of those assembled.

And now forty-three disappeared student teachers have multiplied into thousands demanding justice from the state and greater autonomy for local communities, which are already building alternative healthcare, education, justice and governmental systems. A general strike is scheduled for the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution on November 20.

In Mexico’s unraveling, there is an opportunity for the rest of the world to witness—and support—the emergence of more direct and collective forms of democracy. As the now “deceased” Marcos said, “They wanted to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.”

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Tunisia’s Unfinished Revolution

Protester in Tunisia

A protester holds a burnt picture of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. (AP/Christophe Ena)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Last August, Ons and Ahlam Delhoumi were in a car on their way back from a party to the provincial Tunisian town of Kasserine. Suddenly, men in dark clothes and masks stepped out onto the road from reeds that lined both sides of the street.

The two women may have thought that the shadowy figures were drug traffickers or jihadists that operate along the nearby Algerian border. The men who stepped into the street, however, were police. Taking the Delhoumis for criminals or extremists, they fired on the car.

Ahlam died immediately from a bullet to the head. Ons died after she arrived at a hospital with no doctors or nurses.

Kasserine is not unlike Sidi Bouzid, another interior town. In late 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself there after suffering humiliation at the hands of the police, who had confiscated the scales and fruit he had bought on credit and consequently robbed him of his livelihood. Protests over his death spread to the capital and sent President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing, triggering a wave of revolutions among the downtrodden all over the region.

Today Tunisia is the only place where post–Arab Spring democracy seems doable. Its elections in October were a far cry from the show vote that installed Egyptian military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president last summer.

At the most recent polls, Tunisian voters awarded a plurality of seats to Nidaa Tounes, or “the Call of Tunisia”—a party that gathered secular forces under one umbrella—but didn’t give it a clear majority. Now Nidaa Tounes will have to form a majority government.

It’s a promising transition, but one that could fall apart.

Political Rifts

Kasserine’s policemen were jumpy for good reason. Jihadists have regularly killed police and soldiers here. Firefights happen almost every other day and drones fly overhead, searching the scrub and prickly pear in what looks like the Colorado foothills for jihadis moving across the mountains. The Delhoumis are only two of the many innocent victims of this battle.

The interior of Tunisia is poor, and the state is weaker there than in the coastal cities. These conditions make the area a perfect recruiting ground for Tunisians who want to become jihadists either at home or abroad. Some 3,000 Tunisians are fighting in Syria, and the Interior Ministry says that it has prevented 8,000 more from traveling there.

In the leadup to the election, secularists tried to tie Ennahda—the moderate Islamist party that had previously run the government—to Salafi jihadists. At the polls, voters for Nidaa Tounes—a coalition of former regime figures, leftists and former leftists that gathered together to challenge Ennahda—repeated these charges.

“From the beginning these people were let out of prison and Ennahda said that these organizations, that are now deemed terrorists, were normal,” says Ahmed, a 24-year-old student. “From the beginning they knew they were suspicious but they did nothing.”

Violent Salafis have made themselves into an uncompromising bloc, while the peaceful ones have accused Ennahda of apostasy and are boycotting elections.

Inside Ennahda

“Nidaa Tounes looks at us and the extremists and says that we are two sides of the same coin,” says Faycal Naceur, who is in charge of Ennahda’s media office. “But we are the biggest victims of this phenomenon. Most of the confrontation [between Salafists and the government] took place under our administration.”

Naceur spoke inside an overflowing office building that Ennahda occupies in downtown Tunis. Voters waiting to ask for favors from officials before the election sit in a makeshift waiting room. Like many other offices here, it is made up of temporary walls to accommodate an organization that has outgrown its lease.

The Troika government, so named because it combined Ennahda with two other liberal parties, allowed some Salafi parties to register. But Ennahda’s conciliatory attitude toward secularists drove the Salafists away, and the Troika government was replaced by an interim government that will remain until after the elections.

Naceur outlines Ennahda’s messaging, which this time around is focused on temporal rather than spiritual issues. Yet as Ennahda is somewhat of an umbrella party for the religious, it still contains a very pious element. More extreme preachers are off the ballot but still on the campaign trail. One, Habib al-Loz, addressed a crowd of tens of thousands of people the week before the polls opened.

“Ennahda hasn’t left its principles,” says Mahfoudh Ban Deraa, an imam in Kasserine. “They will apply Sharia gradually, and this is the preferred way, even according to the Caliph Omar.”

Despite the conception of political Islamist movements as more down to earth, there’s a disconnect between the Ennahda leadership that went into temporary exile during Ben Ali’s secularist rule and those that stayed at home with the base.

“Abroad the leadership learned the ability to listen. Some of those that were in Tunis are a bit suspicious of others,” says Hajer Azaeiz, an Ennahda member. Azaeiz was prohibited from wearing the hijab during Ben Ali’s reign, but later wore it as she helped write the country’s new Constitution.

Naceur had the same take. Arrested in his second year of college, he was imprisoned for ten years and tortured for most of them. As he recounted the details of indignities, the young woman sharing his office looks up for a moment, then continues to flick at her smartphone. When he got out, Naceur refused offers by the security forces for permission to re-enroll in the school of psychology in exchange for informing on Ennahda. He eventually returned, where his former roommate now taught one of his classes.

Other members of the top leadership, like former interior minister and later prime minister Ali Laarayedh, were also imprisoned for years. In a role reversal that could only have happened in a revolution, he became the interior minister in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary government. But when Laarayedh attempted to reform the police, a video was leaked of him allegedly having sex with another male prisoner. For any politician that would be scandalous. For an Islamist, it was especially so, and serious security-sector reform was tabled.

The episode demonstrated the staying power of the police and the old regime. Impunity—like that enjoyed by the killers of the Delhoumis—remains rampant.

Pushing Ennahda

Baji Caid Sebsy, an insider octogenarian ousted from the government in the 1970s for advocating freer political competition, leads the Nidaa Tounes movement. He also headed the transition government immediately after Ben Ali’s ouster. The recent reappearance of other old-regime figures has been the source of sporadic controversy among youth in the movement.

This informal partnership between civil society activists and more old-line secularists pushed Ennahda’s Troika government to hand over power to a technocratic interim government last January. Tunisia’s ability to maintain a capable and civil opposition ensured that Ennahda didn’t take too much power, says Hamadi Radissi, a professor of political science at the University of Tunis and a member of Nidaa Tounes.

“Thanks to the balance brought by Nidaa Tounes, Islamists have come to the conclusion that we have to live together,” he says. “And they understood that they have no capacity to Islamize this country thanks to us.”

The divisions inside Nidaa Tounes are more pronounced than Ennahda’s. The party has achieved unity mostly because of its opposition to Islamists, and figures like Radissi don’t plan on staying much longer.

“Believe me, I won’t let them do whatever they want,” he says. “I will leave if they go in a bad direction. And in any case, I’m leaving. I said I would leave when Nidaa Tounes defeats the Islamists.”

On the table are Tunisian sweets that Radissi brought back from Kaiouran, south of Tunis. He speaks with considerable emphasis, sometimes vocalizing his thoughts in French when he is at a loss for the English. When asked what happens when figures like him leave the movement to former regime figures, his answer is less definitive.

“I have no idea,” he says. “This is a personal matter. Pfft! There are some that left before me because some of them said that we are not made for politics.”

Tunisia’s Future Development

Whatever the composition of Tunisia’s new government, which may not be formed until after presidential elections on November 23, it will have to make hard decisions on the economy, which all parties agree is the biggest threat to the revolution’s success.

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“In the revolution, people asked for dignity, jobs and freedom,” says Habib Bouazi, a police officer in Kasserine. “We have freedom now—was it ever conceivable in Ben Ali’s time that a police officer like me would sit with a foreign journalist? What we don’t have is infrastructure and jobs, and they have gotten worse since the revolution.”

Kasserine lags far behind the coastal regions in development, and a World Bank report recently took Tunisia to task for the structure of its economy. The Bank described the economy as predatory, benefiting a select few at the expense of most Tunisians.

Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes’s economic visions do not differ substantially, with both emphasizing the free market. Ennahda in particular has gone out of its way to insist that it won’t rock the boat on the economy, and party officials focus mostly on increased investment rather than structural change.

Across Tunisia, there’s a longing for a government that will stay around long enough to address the country’s social and political ailments, including those that arose from the revolution.

Saleh Delhoumi has been told that the investigation into the deaths of his daughter and niece won’t be investigated until after the elections. “I just want the elections to end so they can see these results and those who were responsible can be held accountable,” he says. “We need to move on.”

Read Next: Egypt Escalates Repression Against Human Rights groups and NGOs

How the North Pole Could Become the World’s Next Battlefield

NASA satellite image of Arctic

A NASA satellite image shows the state of Arctic sea ice. (Reuters/NASA)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

One hundred and sixty-eight years ago this past July, two British warships—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—sailed north into Baffin Bay, bound on a mission to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. It would be the last that the nineteenth-century world would see of Sir John Franklin and his 128 crew members.

But the Arctic that swallowed the 1845 Franklin expedition is disappearing, its vast ice sheets thinning, its frozen straits thawing. And once again, ships are headed north, not on voyages of discovery—the northern passages across Canada and Russia are well known today—but to stake a claim in the globe’s last great race for resources and trade routes.

How that contest plays out has much to do with the flawed legacies of World War II, which may go a long way toward determining whether the Arctic will become a theater of cooperation or—in the words of former NATO commander and US Admiral James G. Stavridis—an “icy slope toward a zone of competition, or worse, a zone of conflict.”

Opening the Northern Passage

There is a great deal at stake.

The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 30 percent of its natural gas. There are also significant coal and iron ore deposits. As the ice retreats, new fishing zones are opening up, and—most importantly—so are shipping routes that trim thousands of miles off voyages, saving enormous amounts of time and money. Expanding trade will stimulate shipbuilding, the opening of new ports and economic growth, especially in East Asia.

Traffic in the Northern Sea Route across Russia—formerly known as the Northeast Passage—is still modest but on the uptick. The easiest of the northern routes to traverse, the passage has seen an increase in shipping, from four vessels in 2010 to seventy-one in 2013. And for the first time in history, a liquid natural gas tanker—the Ob River—made the trip in 2012. On a run from Hammerfest, Norway to Tobata, Japan, the ship took only nine days to traverse the passage, cutting almost half the distance off the normal route through the Suez Canal.

Which is not to say that the Northern Sea Route is a stroll in the garden. The Arctic may be retreating, but it is still a dangerous and stormy place, not far removed from the conditions that killed Franklin and his men. A lack of detailed maps is an ongoing problem, and most ships require the help of expensive icebreakers. But for the first time, specially reinforced tankers are making the run on their own.

Tensions at the Top

Tensions in the region arise from two sources: squabbles among the border states (Norway, Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden) over who owns what, and efforts by non-polar countries (China, India, the European Union and Japan) that want access. The conflicts range from serious to somewhat silly. In the latter category was the 2007 planting of a small Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole by private explorer Artur Chilingarov, a stunt that even the Moscow government dismissed as theatrics.

But the Russians do lay claim to a vast section of the North Pole based on their interpretation of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, which allows a country to claim ownership if an area is part of its continental shelf. Moscow argues that the huge Lomonosov Ridge, which divides the Arctic Ocean into two basins and runs under the Pole, originates in Russia. Canada and Denmark also claim the ridge as well.

Canada organized an expedition this past summer to find out what really happened to Franklin and his two ships. The search was a success—one of the ships was found in Victoria Straits—but the goal was political, not archaeological: Ottawa is using the find to lay claim to the Northwest Passage.

Copenhagen and Ottawa are meanwhile at loggerheads over Hans Island, located between Ellesmere Island and Danish-controlled Greenland. The occupation of the tiny rock by the Canadian military has generated a “Free Hans Island” campaign in Denmark.

The US government has been trying to stake out terrain as well, though it’s constrained by the fact that Washington has not signed the Law of the Seas Convention. The United States has locked horns with Canada over the Beaufort Sea, and the Pentagon released its first “Arctic Strategy” study last year. The United States maintains 27,000 military personnel in the region, not including regular patrols by nuclear submarines.

The Russians and Canadians have ramped up their military presence in the region as well, and Norway has carried out yearly military exercises—“Arctic Cold Response”—involving up to 16,000 troops, many of them NATO units.

Outside Looking In

But you don’t have to be next to the ice to want to be a player. China may be a thousand miles from the nearest ice floe, but as the second-largest economy in the world, it has no intention of being left out in the cold. This past summer the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon made the Northern Sea Route run, and Beijing has elbowed its way into being a permanent observer on the Arctic Council. Formed in 1996, the council consists of the border states plus the indigenous people who populate the vast frozen area. Japan and South Korea are also observers.

And herein lies the problem.

Tensions are currently high in East and South Asia because of issues deliberately left unresolved by the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco that ended World War II. As Canadian researcher Kimie Hara recently discovered, the United States designed the treaty to have a certain amount of “manageable instability” built into it by leaving certain territorial issues unresolved. The tensions that those issues generate make it easier for the United States to maintain a robust military presence in the region. Thus, China and Japan are involved in a dangerous dispute over some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea—called the Diaoyus by China and the Senkakus by Japan—because the 1952 treaty did not designate which country had sovereignty. If it comes to a military confrontation, the United States is bound by treaty to support Japan.

Similar tensions exist between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, between Japan and Russia over the Northern Territories/Southern Kurile islands, and between China, Vietnam and Taiwan over the Spratly and Paracel islands. Brunei and Malaysia also have claims that overlap with China’s. Any ships traversing the East and South China seas on the way north will find themselves in the middle of several nasty territorial disputes.

In theory, the economic potential of the Arctic routes should pressure the various parties to reach an amicable resolution of their differences, but things are complicated these days.

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Russia has indicated it would like to resolve the Northern Territories/Kuriles issue, and initial talks appeared to be making progress. But then in July, Tokyo joined Western sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea, and negotiations have gone into the freezer.

Moscow just signed off on a $400 billion oil and gas deal with Beijing and is looking to increase trade with China as a way to ease the impact of Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. At least for the present, China and Russia are allies and trade partners, and both would like to see a diminished role for the United States in Asia. That wish, of course, runs counter to Washington’s growing military footprint in the region—the so-called “Asia pivot.”

The tensions have even generated some good old-fashioned paranoia. When a Chinese tycoon tried to buy land in northern Norway, one local newspaper claimed it was a plot, calling the entrepreneur “a straw man for the Chinese Communist Party.”

Breaking the Ice

The Arctic may be cold, but the politics surrounding it are pretty hot.

At the same time, the international tools to resolve such disputes currently exist. The first step is a commitment to put international law—such as the Law of the Seas Convention—over national interests.

The Chinese have a good case for sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyus, and Japan has solid grounds for reclaiming most of the Southern Kuriles. Korea would likely prevail in the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, and China would have to back off some of its extravagant claims in the South China Sea.

For all the potential for conflict, there is a solid basis for cooperation in the Arctic. Russia and Norway have divided up the Barents Sea, and Russia, Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom are cooperating on nuclear waste problems in the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk. There are common environmental issues. The Arctic is a delicate place, easy to damage, slow to heal.

As Aqqaluk Lynge, chair of the indigenous Inuit Circumpolar Council, says, “We do not want a return to the Cold War.”


Read Next: Obama is fighting ISIS, Iran and Russia with… oil?

The Bad News About Burma

Burma Police

Policemen in Burma (AP/Khin Maung Win)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

As Barack Obama makes an unprecedented second visit by a US president to Burma, the bad news just keeps rolling in. But he can still make the trip a success. Backsliding reforms, attacks on civilians and evidence of war crimes are among the troubling reports that came out just ahead of Obama’s visit. Harvard Law researchers have presented evidence of war crimes by high-level military officials in Kachin State. Human rights watchdog Fortify Rights released reports detailing attacks on civilians in Kachin State and the complicity of Burmese officials in trafficking Rohingya Muslims. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom states that the Burmese government is “unable or unwilling” to address attacks on Muslims and Christians. And Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi publicly decried the “stalling” of reforms, saying that the United States has at times been too optimistic about the reform process.

President Obama can hardly be caught by surprise by this wave of evidence of backsliding on reforms. In the two years since his first historic visit, some 140,000 Rohingya Muslims have remained displaced in apartheid-like conditions, with the government making clear and deliberate decisions to make their living conditions worse. Earlier this year the government expelled Doctors Without Borders, the main source of health care for hundreds of thousands. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have fled the deplorable conditions in western Burma by boat since 2012, including 14,500 Rohingya in just the past three weeks.

Who Are the Rohingya?

An estimated 1.3 million Rohingya live in Burma—mostly in the western Rakhine State near the border with Bangladesh, from which the first Rohingya came to Burma centuries ago.

As Muslims in a majority Buddhist country, they have faced decades of marginalization. The Burmese government considers the Rohingya illegal “Bengali” immigrants despite the fact that most were born in Burma and that many can trace roots there that go back for generations. A controversial 1982 Citizenship Law stripped them of citizenship, making the Rohingya one of the largest stateless peoples in the world. Because past military governments have focused on promoting a singular Buddhist and Burmese identity, the Rohingya have become not only marginalized, but also isolated and demonized.

Now the government of Burma is taking this one step further. Rohingya were blocked from this year’s census, and weeks ago the government released a proposed “Rakhine State Action Plan” that would deny their very existence. Burma’s president, Thein Sein, has made this point clear, saying “There are no Rohingya among the races” in Burma.

Indeed, the government has been actively pressuring foreign officials not to use the word “Rohingya,” a point highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights as she reminded the government and UN General Assembly that self-identification is a basic right under international human rights law.

Reforms Remarkable but Fragile

The failure of the United States to speak out more forcefully or to take more concrete actions against these deteriorating conditions can be understood in the broader context of the remarkable reforms in Burma over the past few years. The military junta that had ruled for decades has given way to an ostensibly civilian-led democratic system of governance with greater press freedoms, outreach to ethnic minority groups and the release of more than 1,000 political prisoners—including Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now in Parliament. The United States hopes to encourage further notable reforms.

But even these much-lauded reforms have proven fragile and reversible. The Constitution still bans Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president and guarantees the military 25 percent of seats in Parliament. Efforts to reach a national ceasefire with ethnic minority groups have been delayed by new Burmese military offensives and continued reports of attacks on civilians, widespread rape, torture and other severe human rights abuses. Political prisoners continue to be arrested. And attacks on the press are on the increase, as highlighted by the recent death of a prominent journalist in military detention.

In fact, of the eleven commitments for reform that President Thein Sein made to President Obama on his first trip to Burma—which were reiterated during Sein’s first visit to the White House six months later—only one, the signing of the Additional Protocol allowing inspections by the UN’s nuclear agency, has been completely fulfilled

What Obama Can Do

President Obama can still make his trip to Burma a success. He should start by just saying the name “Rohingya.” He used “Rohingya” in a call with President Sein on October 31. But in a trip by Secretary of State John Kerry in August, there was no public use of the forbidden word. Use of the word Rohingya should not even be a question.

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Just as important, while in Burma, Obama should address immediate humanitarian needs by demanding unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of Burma. To address the longer-term root causes of the persecution of the Rohingya, Obama should also demand reform of the 1982 Citizenship Law that labels them illegal “Bengali” migrants. Finally, Obama should insist that President Sein live up to perhaps the easiest of his remaining ten commitments by allowing the opening of a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Obama should also be clear that further backsliding on reforms will lead to revoking rewards, including the possible reinstatement of the sanctions that have been lifted so quickly over the past two years. The recent addition of Aung Thaung, a prominent Burmese lawmaker, to the targeted sanctions list for undermining reforms and perpetuating violence was a start. Several more names should be added to that list, based on emerging evidence of abuses.

The wave of bad news coming out of Burma may make it impossible for President Obama to claim Burma as the foreign policy success he would like. But clear messaging and concrete actions can do a great deal to stem the tide of deteriorating conditions.

Read Next: Burma’s political prisoner problem

History Didn’t Bring Down the Berlin Wall—Activists Did

Mikhail Gorbachev

Former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev. (Reuters/Jim Young)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

On November 9, 1989—twenty-five years ago—huge crowds of East Germans descended on the Berlin Wall. The restless citizens were responding to an announcement by authorities suggesting that the government would loosen travel restrictions.

In truth, those in charge intended to make only limited alterations in visa requirements. But their intentions quickly became irrelevant. Mass numbers of people flocked to the wall, overwhelming the border guards. Soon, along with allies from the West, the crowds began dismantling the hated barrier for good.

Remarkably, although the fall of the Wall was an iconic moment, it was just one of the highlights in a flurry of activity that was sweeping through the Soviet bloc—a series of uprisings that would become known as the revolutions of 1989.

Every so often, we witness a period of mass insurgency that seems to defy the accepted rules of politics: Protests seem to begin popping up everywhere. Organizers see their rallies packed with newcomers who come from far outside their regular network of supporters. Mainstream analysts, taken by surprise, struggle for words. And those in power scramble as the political landscape around them dramatically shifts—sometimes leaving once-entrenched leaders in perilous positions.

If ever there was a time in modern history that exemplified such a moment of peak public activity, it was the second half of 1989.

Although the crowds at the Berlin Wall on November 9 assembled in impromptu fashion, their gathering was not altogether spontaneous. It came after months of growing demonstrations and escalating pressure on the country’s Communist Party. Throughout the fall, weekly rallies in Leipzig had called for freedom of travel and democratic elections. Demonstrations in that city began with just a few hundred protesters, but they grew exponentially until, by early November, they were attracting as many as half a million. The contagion reached other cities as well: Mass protests started erupting in Dresden, East Berlin and beyond.

Demonstrations in East Germany did not feed only off each other; they also drew energy from what had become a region-wide revolt. Earlier that year, in the spring, historic marches in Hungary set an example of how popular pressure could propel negotiations with a reformist government. That summer, in Poland, the union-based opposition party Solidarity—having led a series of crippling strikes the year before—won a stunning and decisive victory in the country’s newly liberalized elections. By autumn, rebellion was in full bloom. Hardly more than a week after the November 9 revolt in East Germany, students in Prague undertook the first demonstration of the “Velvet Revolution.” By the end of the month, social movements would call a general strike and force the end of one-party rule in Czechoslovakia.

Looking back now, what can we learn from these extraordinary mobilizations?

Conventional political analysts see the revolutions of ‘89 as a spontaneous, once-in-a-lifetime swelling of popular discontent. Their description of the wave of uprisings in Eastern Europe mirrors the assertions they make virtually every time an outbreak of mass mobilization erupts on the political stage: They tell us that these moments of peak activity are rare and unpredictable. They contend that mass protest is the product of broad historical forces. And they suggest that no one could consciously engineer events that trigger such upheavals.

On each of these points, the political tradition known as “civil resistance” offers a contrary interpretation. Those who listen will take very different lessons from the momentous ferment of twenty-five years ago.

Civil resistance—the study and practice of nonviolent conflict—is a tradition that traces its lineage through the campaigns of Gandhi, the US civil rights movement, the works of scholars such as Gene Sharp and contemporary revolts such as the Arab Spring. Immersed in the study of how unarmed uprisings work, analysts in this tradition put forth several propositions that challenge conventional wisdom about 1989: They contend, first, that extraordinary mobilizations are not as rare as they might seem; second, that there is an art to organizing around them; and third, that activists willing to embrace a strategy of nonviolent escalation can often set off historic upheavals of their own.

Uprisings large and small

Before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the idea that the Iron Curtain would fall not primarily through coups and military maneuvers but through the mobilization of mass, unarmed resistance would have seemed improbable at best and quite possibly deluded. But what has been remarkable in recent decades is how frequently new examples of successful civil resistance have presented themselves. From the Philippines, to Chile, to South Africa, to Serbia, to Tunisia and Egypt and beyond, the repertoire of civil resistance has ushered in remarkable changes.

Certainly, the revolutions of ‘89 were exceptional in their breadth and impact. Yet, viewed in another way, mass uprisings are a more regular part of our political lives than we often acknowledge. Once you are looking for them, popular mobilizations appear constantly—materializing with little notice in diverse countries, drawing new participants out of the woodwork and upending politics as usual. The Arab Spring of 2011 is an obvious example, one that evoked memories of Eastern Europe. But momentous disruptions need not be so sweeping and international to be significant. Nor need they take place in undemocratic contexts.

Just in the United States, and just in the past fifteen years, we have seen disruptive outbreaks emerge with shocking frequency, capturing the spotlight at a wide range of levels, from the national to the local. Nationwide, landmark protests against the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund in Seattle and Washington, DC, at the turn of the century were followed by massive antiwar mobilizations in New York and San Francisco in 2003. Historic immigration marches in 2006 were followed by the multiplying encampments of the Occupy movement in 2011. State-level mobilizations such as the Wisconsin uprising, citywide protests against police brutality in Oakland and Ferguson and campus living-wage sit-ins, while taking place on more modest scales, have all had an outsized impact in galvanizing public debate. For intensive spurts, each drew in unusual numbers of participants, activating people in ways that are mysterious and foreign to conventional politics.

That mainstream commentators are taken by surprise, again and again, by such mobilizations—large and small—speaks more to their own biases than to the contours of how social change happens.

And yet their biases are not unique. A predisposition toward gradualism extends even into social movement circles. The school of community organizing pioneered by Saul Alinsky has traditionally viewed mass mobilizations with suspicion. Organizers in this lineage charge that outbreaks of protest are flashes in the pan, too unpredictable and unsustainable to be relied upon. They stress that their goal is to build “organizations,” not “movements”; they seek to create institutions that can leverage grassroots power on an ongoing basis. Interestingly, Alinsky himself was more open to the extraordinary potential of peak moments than many of his ideological descendants. Seeing the rush of civil rights activity that followed the 1961 Freedom Rides in the segregated South, Alinsky and his protégé Nicholas von Hoffman dubbed it a “moment of the whirlwind.” The two agreed on the need to temporarily set aside their normal organizing methodologies in order to tap into the energy of the extraordinary uprising.

The politics of the unusual

In contrast to conventional politicians, and even to many organizers, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. carefully studied the dynamics of creating moments of the whirlwind. They were specialists in the politics of the unusual. Through the use of nonviolent conflict, they sought to produce ruptures in the normal functioning of the political system, and thus to propel previously ignored injustices to the fore of public consciousness. It was their talent for doing so that secured their places in history.

In his famous 1963 letter from the Birmingham city jail, King explained that the purpose of direct action “is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation” with otherwise intransigent adversaries. Early in his career, King had been reluctantly thrown into crises created by other activists and organizations. But by the time of the Birmingham campaign, he had developed a savvy understanding of how to manufacture nonviolent conflicts that could stir national indignation and move foot-dragging politicians.

In his 1968 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he described civil rights organizations using militant direct action as “specialists in agitation and dramatic projects,” creating “explosive events” that “attracted massive sympathy and support.” He self-critically noted that these events were no substitute for building institutional structures that could sustain the fight for the long haul. Still, the uprisings he helped create in places like Birmingham and Selma had shaken the American public like few other efforts and had become defining peaks in the push for civil rights.

Decades before, Gandhi had likewise articulated how nonviolent conflict could be used to consciously provoke social crises. “Those who have to bring about radical changes in human conditions and surroundings,” he wrote in 1932, “cannot do it except by raising a ferment in society.”

One of the earliest studies of Gandhi’s method, Krishnalal Shridharani’s 1939 text War Without Violence, elaborates on this theme. It notes that unarmed uprisings often have more in common with war than with routine interest-group politics. “Underlying…both violence and non-violence,” Shridharani writes, “is the basic assumption that certain radical social changes cannot be brought about save by mass action capable of precipitating an emotional crisis, and that the humdrum everyday existence of human life needs shaking up in order that man may arrive at fateful decisions.”

In 1930, when the time came for a decisive confrontation with the British Raj, the Indian National Congress entrusted Gandhi as the sole strategist in charge of crafting its direct-action challenge. Congress members did so not because they were his spiritual disciples—in fact, many distrusted his otherworldly faith in the power of redemptive suffering—but rather because Gandhi had gained a hard-won reputation for being able to create disruptions of historic proportions. In this case, the result was the famous Salt March of 1930, one of the landmark events in the drive for Indian self-determination.

An undetermined future

When social movements are able to provoke political crises that prompt dramatic change, they are not always given much credit for their efforts.

Looking at the revolutions of ‘89, some political scientists hardly discuss popular movements at all. Instead, they focus on economic and geopolitical developments. They stress how the long-term strain caused by competition with the West and the perpetual economic crises in the Eastern bloc fomented unrest. They highlight Mikhail Gorbachev’s signals that the Soviet Union would tolerate reform rather than replicating the Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen Square. These stances are part of a wider trend: Political analysts commonly describe the timing and fortunes of mass uprisings as the product of historic conditions rather than the decisions of citizens themselves.

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Analysts in the field of civil resistance do not deny the importance of economic and political context. But they emphasize the interplay of such conditions with the skills of social movement participants—the agency of activists, as reflected in their strategic choices and on-the-ground execution.

Historians have the luxury of looking back after the fact of an uprising and identifying the structural forces and historical peculiarities that contributed to a successful effort, or that helped to sink an unsuccessful one. Activists on the ground, in contrast, never have the benefit of hindsight, and they must make the most of whatever conditions they encounter. As Hardy Merriman, an analyst and trainer in nonviolent conflict, writes, “agency and skills make a difference, and in some cases have enabled movements to overcome, circumvent, or transform adverse conditions.”

It is important to note that, overwhelmingly, the same experts who would later credit historical conditions for the momentous shifts of ‘89 did not foresee the potential that existed at the time. Writing for the leading journal Foreign Affairs in 1987, a former US ambassador to Czechoslovakia argued that, despite signs of openness from Gorbachev, “there is no prospect of fundamental change in relations between [Warsaw Pact] countries and the USSR.” In the face of such discouraging prognoses, it took a daring and skillful leap of faith for activists to challenge the entrenched and repressive regimes that ruled over them.

From trigger to explosion

Ultimately, neither skills nor conditions are enough on their own. At any given time, history might offer up a “trigger event” that provokes widespread outrage and sends people into the streets. But it takes determined escalation on the part of social movements to keep the issue in the spotlight, to compel greater participation and sacrifice, and to repeatedly reinforce the sense of public urgency.

A final lesson that we can draw in looking back at the revolutions of ‘89 is that, when a whirlwind truly begins churning, it is not the result of one incident. Rather, it is the product of multiple, compounding crises—many of which are the result of deliberate effort.

In his book Doing Democracy, Bill Moyer, a longtime social-movement trainer and theorist of the nonviolent direct-action tradition in the United States, describes the concept of a “trigger event.” A trigger is a “highly publicized, shocking incident” that “dramatically reveals a critical social problem to the public in a vivid way.” These events, Moyer argues, are an essential part of the cycle of every social movement. They create vital windows in which activists can rally mass participation and sharply increase public support for a cause.

Prominent examples of trigger events include the accident at the Three Mile Island power plant in 1979, which suddenly made nuclear safety a hot-button issue. Just days after the accident, a previously planned anti-nuclear rally in San Francisco that ordinarily might have attracted hundreds of participants instead drew a crowd of 25,000. Similarly, the 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus prompted a community-wide boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. And the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit seller Muhammad Bouazizi set off the 2011 revolts of the Arab Spring.

Trigger events, however, are only the beginning; they provide no guarantee of change. There are countless instances of oil spills and school shootings, for example, that spark outrage but ultimately have little impact on political life. Likewise, there have been many other self-immolations that did not have the effect of Bouazizi’s.

In truth, the triggers that do morph into explosive revolts are often less accidental than they first appear. Civil resistance works when groups are willing to seize an opportunity and escalate—rallying the power of mass participation and personal sacrifice in order to produce ever more ambitious acts of resistance. Before Rosa Parks, there had been previous arrests on Jim Crow buses, but civil rights groups consciously chose to make Parks’s arrest into a test case for segregation, in part because she was a committed activist herself. In other instances, from the Salt March to Birmingham to Occupy, movements created their own trigger events, using disruptive actions to make headlines, prompt a reaction from authorities and begin a cycle in which new participants could join in to ever-larger actions.

On November 17, 1989, a week after the Berlin Wall fell, students in Prague held a march to mark the anniversary of a university activist who had been killed during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Sociologists Lester Kurtz and Lee Smithey describe how, when the students encountered security forces, they offered flowers to police and waved their bare hands in the air. The police attacked nevertheless, indiscriminately bludgeoning the students with their truncheons.

“This was the spark that set Czechoslovakia alight,” one writer later remarked.

Certainly, the students were responding to the swelling of revolt in countries all around them. But it was their decision to brave the threat of repression—knowing the dangers, but not the consequences—that launched the Velvet Revolution. And it was the decision of countless others to join them that gave the revolution its force. Today, few things about the whirlwind uprisings of 1989 are more relevant to remember than this choice: to rise up in the face of uncertain outcomes, to risk escalation and to create the possibility of setting a movement ablaze.

Read Next: Remembering the Berlin Wall

Washington Just Lost a Client State in West Africa. What Happens Now?

Former President Blaise Compaoré

Burkino Faso’s ousted President Blaise (Reuters/Lucas Jackson).

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Late last month, longtime Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaoré resigned under public pressure and fled to neighboring Cote d’Ivoire.

Compaoré’s abrupt expulsion—which ended his twenty-seven-year rule—was a significant achievement for the hundreds of thousands of Burkinabes who took to the streets to demand his ouster and a democratic transition.

However, a dark cloud hovers over the demonstrators’ democratic aspirations, as many fear that Compaoré’s loyalists in the military—who seized power in the midst of the ongoing unrest—will refuse to relinquish control to a democratically elected civilian government.

In the wake of further demonstrations, the military has promised to turn over power quickly—but it rebuffed a two-week deadline imposed by the African Union under threat of sanctions.

What happens next will determine whether Compaoré’s fall will mark the beginning of a democratic transition or merely the latest episode in a tradition of military coup d’états that have shaped Burkina Faso’s political landscape since its independence in 1960.

It will also be a test for the West, which long relied on Compaoré’s semi-authoritarian government for investment opportunities and security cooperation. With a US-trained military officer now running the country, it remains to be seen whether Washington will evince much interest in pressing the military to step down.

West African Spring

Though Compaoré’s sudden fall was a surprise even to many of the demonstrators who pressured the West African leader to relinquish power, the country’s political opposition has been mobilized for months.

Last January, peaceful opposition groups staged massive demonstrations in Ouagadougou and other cities to protest Compaoré’s efforts to muscle through constitutional changes that would have enabled him to run for another term in office. The mobilization was so impressive that some international commentators thought a “West African Spring” was developing in Burkina Faso.

On October 30, Burkina Faso’s parliamentarians were expected to vote on a plan to amend the Constitution to let Compaoré stand for re-election in 2015. This triggered an outpouring of popular anger that led to hundreds of people setting ablaze cars, storming the National Assembly, overpowering security forces, attacking the national television headquarters and torching the Parliament. Protesters also set fire to the ruling party’s headquarters in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second-largest city. Consequently, the vote on the constitutional change was called off and the Parliament was dissolved.

A previous bout of unrest in 2011 began within the army and spread among the populace and opposition parties. However, that round of protests fizzled out after Compaoré reshuffled the government.

This time around, the one who got shuffled out was Compaoré himself.

A New Strongman?

Burkina Faso’s Constitution calls for the president of the senate to take power after the president resigns, until elections are held within 60-90 days. However, in the midst of the unrest, Gen. Honoré Traoré, the chief of staff of the armed forces, bucked this requirement and usurped power himself.

Shortly thereafter, Lieut. Col. Isaac Zida declared himself leader and sidelined Traoré with the backing of the Burkinabe military, which reportedly never recognized Traoré as head of state. This resulted in Burkina Faso having three heads of state within two days, following twenty-seven years of rule by just one man.

At this juncture it is not entirely clear who actually leads the country, and Traoré’s whereabouts are unknown. Some regional experts warn that his loyalists may wage a revolt against the Zida-led government, which could open up the country to a prolonged power struggle within the armed forces and undermine the prospects for stability and democratization.

Meanwhile, the protesters who pressured Compaoré to step down remain in the streets, demanding that the military return to the barracks. Many protesters have called for Saran Sérémé, the leader of an opposition group called the Party for Democracy and Change, to become the next president. The military has cracked down on these protesters, violently dispersing rallies outside of the national TV station’s headquarters, resulting in the death of one demonstrator.

The international community has joined the opposition in calling for a transfer of power to a democratically elected civilian government, with the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union—which sent a team to assist Burkinabe authorities in maintaining stability—issuing statements in support of new elections.

The US State Department has called “on the military to immediately transfer power to civilian authorities” and urged “civilian leadership to be guided by the spirit of the constitution of Burkina Faso and to move immediately towards free and fair presidential elections.”

Zida has claimed that the military usurped power to prevent Burkina Faso from sliding into “anarchy,” disavowing any desire to rule. “I salute the memory of the martyrs of this uprising and bow to the sacrifices made by our people,” Zida declared.

On November 5, the presidents of Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal mediated talks in Ouagadougou among Burkina Faso’s military, politicians and civil society groups. The parties agreed that the transitional government should hold power for one year before elections in November 2015, but did not reach an agreement on who should lead the country during that period.

Burkina Faso and the West

The United States and France—Burkina Faso’s former colonial ruler—are closely monitoring the fluid situation in Ouagadougou.

After seizing power in the 1987 coup, Compaoré aligned Burkina Faso with Western superpowers, opening the country to both French military bases and a US spying network. More recently, Compaoré’s government has made itself a willing partner in Washington’s putative counterterrorism operations against Islamist militias in Africa’s Maghreb and Sahel regions. Zida himself received training from the US military.

Meanwhile, Burkina Faso has become Africa’s fourth-largest producer of gold. With the country’s natural resources opened up to international investment, Compaoré’s economic policies have created lucrative opportunities for Western corporations.

Yet exploitation of the country’s resource wealth has not done much for ordinary Burkinabes, nearly half of whom still live below the official poverty line. With high rates of infant mortality and low rates of literacy, Burkina Faso ranks near the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index. The development that failed to materialize despite growth in the country’s extractive industry was a key driver in the protests that precipitated Compaoré’s departure.

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The legacy of former Burkinabe president Thomas Sankara, who was killed in the coup that brought Compaoré to power, remains a potent ideological force. A Marxist revolutionary, Sankara—a so-called “African Che Guevara”—aligned Burkina Faso against France and the United States and implemented aggressive land reforms, among other redistributive policies.

Many Burkinabes attribute the nation’s problems to Compaoré’s embrace of neoliberalism and his reversal of Sankara’s reforms. Sankara’s brand of anti-imperialism remains an ideal for many West Africans who envision a future in which the region becomes more economically and politically independent of the West.

These currents could create a conundrum for Washington and its allies. A democratic government put in power by a population angry over the inequality engendered by Compaoré’s economic policies might well threaten Western economic interests. And a new government might not cooperate as readily with Western military and intelligence agencies.

Yet Burkina Faso is not Egypt, where the military’s toppling of a divisive civilian government initially enjoyed a modicum of popular support. In the absence of a democratic transition, protests could continue indefinitely.

This leaves Compaoré’s old Western allies with a dilemma: Will Paris and Washington endorse a democratic revolution that might produce policies they don’t like, or will the West risk trying to legitimize the seizure of power by a divided military lacking public trust? The State Department’s support for “free and fair presidential elections” in the country might yet be tested.

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Fatal Encounter: A Transgender Woman Meets the US Marine Corps

(Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

As I peered at Jennifer Laude’s serene face in the open casket, I saw the wound on her forehead that was barely concealed by the mortician’s makeup. I did not see the bruises on her neck and shoulders, but I was told they were severe. “They seemed to have been inflicted by a martial arts move,” said a mourner familiar with the autopsy. “That may have been one of the causes of death, along with drowning.”

A few days earlier, on October 11, Jennifer, a transgender woman, was found dead in a hotel room, her face immersed in a toilet bowl. The murder took place in Olongapo, a city adjoining the former US naval base at Subic Bay. Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton of the US Marine Corps was identified as Jennifer’s companion entering the motel room and then leaving the crime scene after about fifteen to twenty minutes.

The case has become a cause célèbre. It is destabilizing US-Philippine relations and highlighting the difficulties of the Obama administration’s push to root out the entrenched anti-gay culture of the US military.

Walking Weapons

Jennifer’s violent end, with no guns or knives involved, might be linked to Pemberton’s martial arts training, say some who have closely followed the case. Pemberton, it turns out, is scarcely out of the Marines’ famous (or infamous) boot camp, where martial arts skills are drilled into recruits. As a letter from one recruit (reproduced in Hamilton Nolan’s blog linked to the Huffington Post) notes:

We learn a ton of martial arts, which is technically called MCMAP–Marine Corps Martial Arts Program–but I call it Karate and ninja training, which my DI’s [drill instructors] don’t like one bit. It started with boring punches and kicks, tiger shulman tae kwon do style, but now we’re learning throws, counters, elbows, stomps, bayonet attacks, bayonet defenses, etc. all of which we do at full speed and intensity on each other. (sometimes w pads but often not). If the DI’s think we’re going easy on each other, they flip a shit.

The MCMAP shit is incorporated into our PT workouts, one of the best workouts we did was the martial arts conditioning course: 2 min of jab straight hook vs. a recruit w a pad throw a recruit over your shoulder, carry them back and forth btwn 2 cones 30 yards apart somersault (sp?) back and forth 30 yards apartment roundhouse kicks drag a recruit back and forth for 30 yards elbow strikes choke counters knee strikes run 1/2 mile punch blocks/throws crawl (low) in sand for 100 yards body squats run 1/4 mile.

Needless to say, the enraged marine that fate brought face to face with Jennifer Laude on the night of October 11 at the Celzon Lodge in Olongapo had been trained to be a walking weapon.

Homophobic Socialization

There is another thing that boot camp drills into raw recruits: homophobia, and plenty of it. With the repeal of the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the Pentagon, discrimination against gays and lesbians is now supposed to be banned in all US armed services, with heavy penalties for violations. But according to the same anonymous recruit’s account:

Don’t ask Don’t Tell…may have been repealed, but the USMC sure hasn’t adapted. We’re called faggots 10-50 times a day… ‘Yeah, you would think that’s a pushup, faggot,’ etc. Any time we fuck something up, the DI’s tell us ‘you stupid fucking thing. That’s more wrong than two boys fucking.’ One captain, when giving an ethics class, and talking about how one mistake can change your life/identity told the entire company ‘you can be a bridge builder your entire life, but you suck one dick and you’re a cocksucker till you die.’

With thousands of such walking weapons from the most homophobic of America’s armed services prowling Olongapo’s streets on R&R after testosterone-raising military exercises, the murder of Jennifer Laude was an event waiting to happen. The volatile mix of training in the lethal arts and aggressive homophobic socialization was likely to be among the factors that led Pemberton to cross the line from anger to murder that fateful night. And violence such as that meted out to Jennifer is likely to occur again and again, as the United States stations more and more troops in the Philippines in pursuit of Washington’s grand geopolitical design to contain China.

A Dangerous and Useless Presence

The murder of Jennifer has placed the spotlight on two security agreements that the Philippines has with the United States: the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). One of the key motivations of those who opposed the agreements was to prevent the civilian population from again becoming collateral damage as victims of rape, murder and hate crimes, as many of them were before the withdrawal of the big US bases in 1992.

The rape of a Filipina named “Nicole” by another US Marine, Daniel Smith, in 2005 confirmed the anti-VFA movement’s worst fears. Now an even more brutal crime has taken place. There are people, like President Benigno Aquino III, who say that the Nicole and Jennifer cases are “isolated incidents,” that these are outweighed by the benefits allegedly brought by the presence of US troops. Such assertions are increasingly hollow, especially since Washington is not committed to defending the territories and maritime zones claimed by Manila in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) in the first place. The United States has stated that it won’t intervene in sovereignty disputes in the Spratly Islands.

To prevent future incidents, some have proposed tighter regulation of shore leave or more intensive instruction of US troops on the “rules of engagement” with the civilian population. But those opposed to the US military presence are not satisfied with these half measures when the troops are not needed in the first place, since they do not promote the national security of the country.

After keeping him aboard the USS Peleliu docked at Subic Bay for nearly two weeks after the murder, the United States flew Pemberton by helicopter to Fort Aguinaldo, a Philippine base near Manila, where he is presently confined in an air-conditioned van and guarded by US Marines. This anomalous situation has provoked demands for the Philippine government to take genuine and full custody of the suspect. Many are worried that the United States is not serious about turning Pemberton over, even after conviction. They cite the case of Daniel Smith. Instead of turning him over to Philippine authorities, the United States spirited Smith out of the country when the victim inexplicably “recanted” her testimony.

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The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs has stated that under the terms of the VFA, the United States could maintain custody of the accused until after prosecution and conviction. The secretary of justice contradicted this, saying that with Pemberton in a Philippine military facility, the government already had custody of the suspect. Meanwhile, President Aquino told the media he would not be present at Laude’s burial because “I don’t attend wakes of people I don’t know. I find it…uncomfortable in trying to condole with people who don’t know me.” All this has created the image of a hapless and insensitive government that appears hesitant to secure justice for one of its slain citizens.

Obama’s Troubled Anti-Discrimination Policy

As the Philippine government flounders, the Obama administration has been confronted with the reality that despite its repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, the banning of discrimination against gays and lesbians may be facing rough sailing in the armed services. The brutal slaying of Jennifer and the continued homophobic socialization of recruits indicate how difficult it may be to uproot deep-seated attitudes and institutional practices. It is not surprising that a Marine is in the hot seat. The Marine Corps carried out the fiercest opposition to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, with Gen. James Amos, until recently the Marine Corps commandant, claiming that the change could cost lives because of the impact on “discipline” and “unit cohesiveness.” A few months after the banning of anti-gay discrimination, Amos reversed himself, claiming the Marines had “adapted smoothly and embraced the change.” The Laude murder and the continued employment of anti-gay slurs as a psychological disciplinary tool in boot camp call this judgment into question.

On the hot and sunny day of October 24, Jennifer Laude was finally laid to rest in Olongapo. Hundreds of people were in attendance, but other than myself and the chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, Philippine national government authorities were markedly absent. In my eulogy, I called Jennifer “a symbol of our suffering motherland” and called for “justice for Jennifer and justice for our country.”

Taking into account the lopsided history of US-Philippine relations, that demand was, in the view of the skeptics, a tall order.

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