Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 6, 2018

Horizontalism and the Nicaraguan crisis

Filed under: nicaragua — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

After spending most of yesterday combing through the radical press and Nexis, I have a better handle on the current crisis. At the risk of sounding like a “tankie”, what you will read here departs from the narrative of most of the left press so let me start off with a brief review of some of the more typical coverage.

Ortega on Trial was written for Jacobin by Courtney Morris, an assistant professor of African Studies at Penn State. Although not using the buzzword “horizontalism”, there is no doubt that she views the university-based April 19th Movement as part of this trend that has endeared itself to anarchists and autonomists:

The 19th of April Movement shares many characteristics with similar popular democratic movements that have emerged in recent years. Like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives, and the Zapatista movement, this mobilization is defined by its diffuse, collective leadership model, strategic use of social media as a tool for collective protest, and the reclamation of public space as a site for direct political action.

However, these activists are not averse to drawing upon the authority of one of the most verticalist institutions in Latin America, the OAS: “The administration has refused, however, to allow representatives from the Organization of American States to lead the truth commission investigation as activists have demanded.” Perhaps Ortega has been influenced by other Jacobin authors, who have less confidence in an organization considered “U.S.-dominated”.

Dan La Botz poses the question in New Politics whether we are on the eve of another revolution in Nicaragua. Unlike most on the left who accuse Ortega of betraying the revolution in Stalin-like fashion, he thinks it was rotten from the start: “the central problem is that the Sandinistas have never held democracy as a core value, neither in their revolutionary past nor in their post-revolutionary and quite reactionary present.”

To show how the degenerate the FSLN was straight out of the womb, he alludes to the earliest sign: “While there was briefly an ostensibly coalition government, in fact the Sandinistas dominated the country from day one of the revolution, their coalition partners gradually resigning. The revolution was founded on deception.”

It is not exactly clear what sort of “coalition” La Botz is referring to but a five-person Council of National Reconstruction was formed in 1979 consisting of 3 FSLN members alongside Alfonso Robelo and Violeta Chamorro representing the bourgeoisie. Before the year was up, they resigned and became two top leaders of the Reagan-backed counter-revolution. Robelo joined UNO, the armed movement made up mostly of former Somoza’s National Guardsmen while Chamorro used La Prensa as an ideological battering ram against the government, resorting to lies that make Fox News look respectable. Deception? I don’t think so. I think it was more likely naivete on the part of the FSLN thinking that such figures could ever be trusted.

Writing for the ISO’s newspaper, my old friend Mike Friedman did think that the revolution was betrayed as the title “Nicaragua’s Tyrant and How He Switched Sides” indicates. You see, the regime “switched sides” by abandoning its early revolutionary goals and adopting “neoliberal and pro-business economic policies, selective repression and widespread patronage, the latter based on Venezuelan oil largesse.”

Anybody who questions whether Daniel Ortega is a “tyrant” is—ipso facto—some kind of “tankie”:

FRANKLY, I find the stance of U.S. leftists who continue to defend the Ortega/Murillo regime in Nicaragua–either because it is in Washington’s gunsights or because it somehow represents the legacy of the 1979 Sandinista revolution–utterly antithetical to anything remotely resembling a principled position.

Rather, this Manichaean perspective reflects a “campist” view hearkening back to the old supporters of the Stalinist Soviet Union (and China), who divided the world into opposing camps and thereby provided uncritical support to the USSR, its gulags and executions, and its repression of popular upsurges in Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc countries.

Such voices have transferred their fixation on Papa Joe to any leader that has earned the ire of the U.S. and spouts anti-(Western) imperialist rhetoric. They conveniently ignore or forget the fact that we no longer live in a bipolar world, but rather one in which China and Russia have become aspiring imperialist powers themselves.

I got a big chuckle out of this. Not long after the Arab Spring began, Friedman began complaining about “regime change” supporters on Marxmail who did not understand the need to defend Gaddafi and Assad. When he posed the question of whether he belonged on such a pro-imperialist mailing list, I did him the favor of unsubbing him.

Like most people infatuated with the student movement, Friedman will have nothing to do with “verticalism”:

During my years in Nicaragua, I saw the revolution make strides toward mass participation, social justice and human well-being, and then recede and finally suffer defeat, primarily as a result of Washington’s shooting war and war of attrition, but also as a result of growing “verticalism” and popular disempowerment by the revolutionary government.

Maybe it is time for people like Friedman and La Botz to reread what happened in the Soviet Union during “War Communism”. By comparison, Nicaragua in the late 80s was a much more “horizontalist” society—not even using the death penalty that had become necessary in the Soviet Union as Trotsky explained in “Their Morals and Ours”.

Finally, we come to horizontalism incarnate. The anarchists at “It’s Going Down” conducted a long interview with one of their co-thinkers who was in the April 19th Movement that led the protests against Ortega. He (or she) describes himself (or herself) as the son (or daughter) of an ex-military poet. My eyes lingered over that term since I wondered what other country in the world would make a place for military poets.

Reading through the interview, I searched in vain for some sort of program or strategy. Alas, there was nothing but this:

Q: What are the sources of the horizontal values and structures within the movement?

A: The main source has been the realization that we don’t want to replicate the authoritarian and vertical model represented by the government. As young people, we don’t want to be told what to do by people who claim to be smarter than us. Therefore, it was necessary to experiment with other models. Some sectors only spoke briefly of these models, but it was the right time to implement them and they were beautiful to see. These models are now part of our collective vocabulary. For the first time, thousands of people are listening to groups speak, how they talk, learning how the pass around the microphone, how to speak as a “we.”

“As young people, we don’t want to be told what to do by people who claim to be smarter than us. Therefore, it was necessary to experiment with other models.” Maybe it isn’t a great idea to be spending too much time experimenting with models unless you’ve been reading Michael Albert. He’s been recommending his cookbook for 40 years at least and it hasn’t gotten us very far.

It isn’t as if this kind of activism hasn’t been tried before. Anybody remember the Piqueteros in Argentina? Starting in 1996, they organized blockades to protest the right-Peronist government of Carlos Menem as well as forming co-ops and building ties with the “recovered factories” movement. In a breathless article for TomDispatch, Jim Straub could have been describing Nicaragua today:

As a result, many of these groups broke with traditional leftist practices, turning instead to a number of strikingly participatory, directly democratic ways of acting and mobilizing. The emphasis was on broad participation and internal equality in decision-making, which came to be called “horizontalism.” They also rejected the “clientelism” which political parties in Argentina have long used to co-opt popular organizations (in which an organized community’s votes are simply traded for favors, money, or bags of groceries); and they staked out a fierce independence from all existing Argentine politicians (a strategy of political independence that they call “autonomy”). Horizontalism and autonomy can be seen as the conceptual heart of the Piquetero movement — fundamentally new political strategies used by the poorest of Argentina in their fight to create a new economy.

So whatever happened to the Piqueteros? The same thing that happened to the Zapatistas. They withered on the vine. When you consciously avoid politics, as is the custom of anarchism going back to Bakunin’s day, you surrender to class forces that do use the state on their own behalf—including Ortega’s caudillo regime.

But if you are talking about real “verticalism” as opposed to a government that dropped the Social Security “reform” like a hot potato and whose chief of police resigned under pressure on April 28th, you must consider the man most likely to replace him, one Eduardo Montealegre who was Minister of Finance in the government led by President Enrique Bolaños that preceded Ortega’s first re-election in 2007. He ran against Ortega that year and was the choice of both George W. Bush and the Sandinista Renovation Movement that consisted of people supposedly committed to the original goals of the revolution. He was ruled off the ballot in 2016 due to a technicality but will likely be cleared for the new elections the April 19th Movement is demanding.

An article written by Toni Solo in 2003 is a useful reminder of what Nicaragua’s economy was like under the economic program administered by Harvard Business School graduate Eduardo Montealegre:

Nicaragua has already privatized its telephone utility, creating a monopoly of landline phones. It did the same with electricity distribution, sold to a Spanish multinational, Union Fenosa. Consequently, stories of over-charging abound, such as the woman tortilla maker living in a shack with just a small television and a couple of light bulbs, earning around US$28 a month. Accustomed to bills of US$3 or 4 a month, she suddenly received one for US$200. Forced to pay these exorbitant demands or go without, many Nicaraguan families sink deeper into debt.

Get it? All of a sudden, you had to pay 50 times more for electricity. Meanwhile, the anarchists in Nicaragua were ready to take these measures when Daniel Ortega initially called for a 5 percent reduction in pension benefits, caring little that the net result will be a return to power by the truly “verticalist” regimes of the past.


May 4, 2018

Nicaraguan contradictions

Filed under: Counterpunch,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 5:13 pm

Juan and Eva Perón

nic-daniel-ortega-rosario-murilloDaniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo


So what had happened in Nicaragua since Daniel Ortega became the president once again in 2007 and was reelected two more times? I really hadn’t paid much attention to the country other than to call attention to what was obviously an environmentally unsound project to build a new canal underwritten by a Chinese investor.

After reading more than a hundred pages of mostly scholarly material from behind the JSTOR paywall, I have come to the conclusion that Ortega can be described in Marxist terms as a left Bonapartist or what is commonly known in Latin America as a caudillo. He abandoned the FSLN’s original program that promised once in power to “plan the national economy, putting an end to the anarchy characteristic of the capitalist system of production.” Instead, he embraced capitalist measures, even to the point of enlisting the support of COSEP, the powerful instrument of Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie. However, unlike Violetta Chamorro, whose neoliberal policies tore apart the country in much the same way that Pinochet’s did in Chile, he adopted what Ortega’s economic adviser Bayardo Arce called a “market economy with a preferential option for the poor”.

Continue reading

April 13, 2016

Nicaragua’s industrialists? Say what?

Filed under: nicaragua — louisproyect @ 10:03 pm

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 5.59.41 PM

Louis Proyect in Managua, November 1984

When I noticed that Bhaskar Sunkara had tweeted a link to a Jacobin article titled “Ortega’s Betrayal” written by Jonah Walters, I concluded immediately even before reading it that the author was a member of the International Socialists Organization (ISO). As Jason E. Smith had noted in a Brooklyn Rail article titled “Let Us Be Terrible: Considerations on the Jacobin Club”, the magazine had begun to feature articles by members of the group: “While it has always toyed with the disaffected liberals on the fringes of the Democratic Party, more recent contributors have included writers and cadre with primary allegiance to Trotskyist organizations, like the ISO…”

I don’t have any big problems with ISO members writing for Jacobin. Most are very bright graduate students and junior professors with a lot on the ball. Unfortunately, Jonah Walter’s article on Nicaragua was the ISO at its worst. As is customary for groups coming out of the Trotskyist movement, they see their role as the political and moral conscience of the left. If you are looking for take-downs of Alexis Tsipras, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro for failing to lead successful revolutions from below, the ISO press is the place to go. As Peter Camejo once told me in the early 80s, groups like the SWP and the ISO are always beyond reproach because they have never been put in a position of power that would test their ability to live up to their own lofty ideals.

Walters, who is not identified as an ISO member on Jacobin (it is entirely possible that he is no longer a member of the group whose revolving door probably spins no more rapidly than any other Leninist group), is not entirely clear whether Ortega was a Judas goat from the beginning or only after he was reelected in 2007 as a remodeled neoliberal. Consistent with the ISO analysis of Venezuela, Walters pins his hope on dissidents to the left of Ortega including Mónica Baltodano who is a leader of the “explicitly socialist” Movement to Rescue Sandinismo. She would seem to play the same role as trade union militant Orlando Chirino played in a number of articles in the ISO press as a leftist foil to Hugo Chavez. Perhaps I am nothing but a sinful opportunist but I lost the appetite for writing these sorts of articles long ago.

Rather than trying to defend the post-2007 Ortega (an impossible task), I want to turn my attention to the first part of the article in which he seems to be located in limbo rather than inferno. Walters believes that the FSLN of the 1980s was “an inspiration for a generation of leftists” and that “Whatever their shortcomings, they became a shining example of successful revolutionary politics.” I guess I am one of the generation of leftists Walters is referring to since I was the president of the board of Tecnica, an organization that recruited engineers, programmers and other skilled people to work with Nicaraguan government agencies.

In that capacity, I got frequent reports on the Nicaraguan economy from Michael Urmann, Tecnica’s founder and executive director, who met regularly with Paul Oquist who was Ortega’s chief economic adviser. In addition to that, I paid very close attention to the left press at the time, including NACLA Reports and other print publications (the Internet was still in its early stages as an alternative media source.)

Daniel Ortega’s original sin appears to be adopting the economic program for Nicaragua associated with the Tercerista tendency in the FSLN, one that conceived of socialism being built on the basis of a class alliance between peasants, workers and the anti-dictatorship bourgeoisie. I don’t want to dwell on this but there is strong evidence that the three tendencies in the FSLN had overcome their differences by the time they had entered the final stage of the battle with Somoza. For more information on this, I recommend George Black’s “Triumph of the People: The Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua”. The only fighters in Nicaragua who were determined to “go all the way” against the bourgeoisie were a detachment of Nahuel Moreno’s Fourth International and utterly devoid of a broad social base.

What really got my attention was Jonah Walter’s claim that “Once in power, the FSLN established a mixed economy — without the capacity to organize production on a national scale, the government depended on industrialists with deep pockets to invest in domestic production.”

Depended on industrialists with deep pockets? What the fuck is he talking about? I understand that Walters was probably born after Daniel Ortega was voted out of office in 1990 but this is no excuse for getting the Nicaraguan economy so wrong. Anybody who visited Managua in the 1980s would realize almost immediately that there was no industry to speak of.

Nicaragua was primarily an agroexport country (could Walters possibly be thinking that a cattle ranch was an industry?) but there was some industrial growth in the 1960s, largely in processed foods, chemicals, and metal manufacturing according to Wikipedia but the 1972 earthquake that was centered in Managua utterly destroyed it. About 2,500 small shops engaged in manufacturing and commercial activities were wiped off the face of the earth and about 90% of the buildings in Managua were left unstable.

Anybody who visited Managua could not help but notice this. Cattle and goats roamed the streets of Managua and people squatted in the ruins of buildings in the downtown area. The largest “industries” as far as I know were the locally brewed beer and rum that were always something to look forward to in the evening after a long day spent in a government agency training people.

Nicaragua gained most of its foreign revenue through the export of sugar, cotton, coffee, beef and lumber but hardly enough to keep the country afloat during Reagan’s war on the country. The GDP of Nicaragua in the late 80s was about the same as the annual sale of American blue jeans. As far as “industrialists with deep pockets” is concerned, I have no idea what this could possibly mean in a country like Nicaragua that was the poorest in the Western hemisphere after Haiti. Couldn’t Jonah Walters have taken the trouble to do a little research before he wrote such an ill-informed article? After all, he is identified as a Jacobin researcher.

Back in 2004, I wrote an article for Revolution Magazine in New Zealand that was a reply to ISO leader Lee Sustar on Nicaragua. Since it was written before I began blogging, it is worth reposting here:

Nicaragua 25 years later: a reply to Lee Sustar

Twenty-five years ago, the FSLN seized power in Nicaragua. Although it is difficult to see this abjectly miserable country in these terms today, back then it fueled the hopes of radicals worldwide that a new upsurge in world revolution was imminent. Along with Grenada, El Salvador and Guatemala, where rebel movements had already seized power or seemed on the verge of taking power, Nicaragua had the kind of allure that Moscow had in the 1920s.

So what happened?

While nobody would gainsay the political collapse of the FSLN after its ouster and troubling signs just before that point, it is worth looking a bit deeper into its rise and fall. There are strong grounds to seeing its defeat not so much in terms of its lacking revolutionary fiber, but being outgunned by far superior forces. With all proportions guarded, a case might be made that Sandinista Nicaragua had more in common with the Paris Commune than the Spanish Popular Front, which was doomed to failure by the class collaborationist policies of the ruling parties.

You can get a succinct presentation of this analysis from Lee Sustar, an ISO leader who contributed an article to Counterpunch titled “25 Years on: Revolution in Nicaragua.” He states:

While the U.S. and its contra butchers are to blame for the destruction of the Nicaraguan economy, the contradiction at the heart of the FSLN’s politics was instrumental in its downfall. FSLN leaders couldn’t escape the centrality of class divisions in the ‘revolutionary alliance’–the fact that workers and ‘nationalist’ employers had contradictory interests.

The conditions of workers had deteriorated throughout the 1980s as runaway inflation wiped out wage gains. Workers participated in Sandinista unions and mass organizations–but they didn’t hold political power, and their right to strike was suspended for a year as early as 1981. This allowed the opportunistic Nicaraguan Socialist Party–a longtime rival of the FSLN–to give a left-wing cover to Chamorro’s coalition, which in turn functioned as the respectable face of the contras.

With respect to the failure of the FSLN to align itself with workers (and peasants, a significant omission in Sustar’s indictment), Washington seemed worried all along that bourgeois class interests were being neglected and that Nicaragua was in danger of becoming “another Cuba.” Of course, since Cuba never really overthrew capitalism according to the ISO’s ideological schema, this might seem like a moot point. In any case, it is often more useful to pay attention to the class analysis of the State Department and the NY Times than it does to small Marxist groups. If the ruling class is worried that capitalism is being threatened in a place like Nicaragua, they generally know what they are talking about.

Virtually all the self-proclaimed “Marxist-Leninist” formations, from the Spartacist League to more influential groups like the ISO, believe that the revolution collapsed because it was not radical enough. If the big farms had been expropriated, it is assumed that the revolution would have been strengthened. While individual peasant families might have benefited from a land award in such instances, the nation as a whole would have suffered from diminished foreign revenues. After all, it was cotton, cattle and coffee that was being produced on such farms, not corn and beans. When you export cotton on the world market, you receive payments that can be used to purchase manufactured goods, medicine and arms. There is not such a market for corn and beans unfortunately. Even if the big farms had continued to produce for the agro-export market under state ownership, they would have been hampered by the flight of skilled personnel who would have fled to Miami with the owners. Such skills cannot be replicated overnight, especially in a country that had suffered from generations of inadequate schooling.

While all leftwing groups that operate on the premise that they are continuing with the legacy of Lenin, virtually none of them seem comfortable with the implications of Lenin’s writings on the NEP, which are crucial for countries like Nicaragua in the 1980s or Cuba today, for that matter. In his speech to the Eleventh Congress of the Communist Party in 1922, Lenin made the following observations:

The capitalist was able to supply things. He did it inefficiently, charged exorbitant prices, insulted and robbed us. The ordinary workers and peasants, who do not argue about communism because they do not know what it is, are well aware of this.

But the capitalists were, after all, able to supply things—are you? You are not able to do it.’ That is what we heard last spring; though not always clearly audible, it was the undertone of the whole of last spring’s crisis. “As people you are splendid, but you cannot cope with the economic task you have undertaken.” This is the simple and withering criticism which the peasantry—and through the peasantry, some sections of workers—levelled at the Communist Party last year. That is why in the NEP question, this old point acquires such significance.

We need a real test. The capitalists are operating along side us. They are operating like robbers; they make profit; but they know how to do things. But you—you are trying to do it in a new way: you make no profit, your principles are communist, your ideals are splendid; they are written out so beautifully that you seem to be saints, that you should go to heaven while you are still alive. But can you get things done?

If the Bolsheviks required a return to some elements of capitalism in 1922 in order to “help get things done,” why would anybody expect the FSLN to do otherwise? In 1922, the Bolsheviks ruled over a country that had wiped out their own contras decisively and secured its borders. By comparison, Nicaragua was like a sieve with armed terrorists backed by the USA infiltrating freely from North and South. The Soviet Union was also a major economic power, despite being ravaged by war. With an immense population and an abundance of coal and iron ore, it had the ability to produce its own heavy capital goods. Nicaragua, by comparison, had a population about the size of the borough of Brooklyn and no industry to speak of.

Despite all these relative advantages, the Bolshevik leaders feared for the survival of the Soviet Union unless it received help from victorious socialist revolutions in the more advanced European countries. In “Results and Prospects,” Trotsky wrote:

But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.

With a GDP equal to the size of what US citizens spend on blue jeans each year, how would Nicaragua have managed to forestall the fate that Trotsky predicted for the USSR? Indeed, whatever the faults of Stalinist Russia, it could always be relied on after a fashion to provide material aid for postcapitalist countries like Cuba or Vietnam that were under siege. It was Nicaragua’s misfortune to have come into existence at the very time that such protections could no longer be guaranteed, even when doled out like from an eyedropper.

In October 1988, Soviet Foreign Ministry official Andrei Kozyrev wrote that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in “a state of class confrontation with the United States or any other country,” and, with respect to the Third World, “the myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from lack of it.” It is safe to assume that high-level Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev’s article appeared.

These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In early 1989, a high- level meeting took place between Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave Abrams a copy of Kozyrev’s article. This telling gesture convinced the Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out Nicaragua.

This meeting is described in Robert Kagan’s “A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990.” Kagan was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that contained what has become know as the “Reagan Doctrine”. More recently, Kagan has gained attention as part of the gaggle of neoconservatives pushing for war against Iraq last year. His “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order” basically provided an ideological justification for US unilateralism since the Europeans were seen as epicene appeasers of Evil. Since the reversals in Iraq over the past year or so, Kagan has maintained a lower profile.

Despite the expectations of the ordinary Nicaraguan who voted for the removal of Daniel Ortega, the country was not the beneficiary of US largesse. With the removal of the Soviet Union as a countervailing hegemon, it was no longer necessary to bribe restive populations. Instead of a Marshall Plan, the best that could be hoped for were a few maquiladoras.

In a newly established free trade zone, a textile factory owned by Chentex set up shop. In 2000, a delegation from the United States discovered women who were working 60 hours a week. One woman who was married to another maquiladora employee suffered from conditions that were far worse than those endured under FSLN rule. The December 3, 2000 NY Times quoted one delegation member: “The couple had a 3-year-old daughter with discolored tips of her hair, probably from a protein deficiency. These are people who work 60, 70 hours a week, and their standard of living is just abysmal.” When these workers tried to organize themselves into a union, the bosses attempted to fire them all. Contrary to Lee Sustar, you can be assured that these working people knew the difference between the FSLN’s attitude toward working people and the neoliberal gang in charge right now. The FSLN acted as it did because it had no alternative; the US backed government and its maquila bourgeoisie act as it does because it is sees workers as mules to generate superprofits.

Despite the best efforts of the FSLN to make itself acceptable to US imperialism, its hallowed past still condemns it. When Daniel Ortega ran for president of Nicaragua in 2001 on a tepid social democratic program, Jeb Bush wrote an attack in the Miami Herald. Ortega supposedly “neither understands nor embraces the basic concepts of freedom, democracy and free enterprise”. He added: “Daniel Ortega is an enemy of everything the United States represents. Further, he is a friend of our enemies. Ortega has a relationship of more than 30 years with states and individuals who shelter and condone international terrorism.” The article was immediately reprinted in La Prensa under the headline “The brother of the president of the United States supports Enrique Bolanos” by Ortega’s rivals in the Liberal party. Both the Liberal Party and La Prensa enjoyed CIA funding in the 1980s. One presumes that this is still the case.

If the nightmare of maquiladoras and declining economic expectations is to be reversed, it will come as a result of more favorable objective circumstances in Latin America and Central America generally. With the rise of Hugo Chavez and the continuing resilience of the Colombian guerrillas, that day may be coming sooner rather than later.


March 22, 2015

The Tecnica video is back online

Filed under: Film,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 8:06 pm

In July 2008 I digitized a video about Tecnica from VHS and posted it to Google/Video. This was before Google bought Youtube and when it was a reasonable alternative for longer videos like “Tecnica—at Work in Nicaragua”, which ran for 20 minutes.

I just took a look at my posting of the Google video on my blog that month and was pleased to see the late Roger Burbach’s comment:


Great article and video. You captured the spirit of the 80s in Nicaragua and among those internationalistas to went to participate in a dream.

Drop me a note.

Roger Burbach

I was not so pleased, however, to have learned a few months ago that the video had disappeared. A bit of research turned up the following on Wikipedia:

On April 15, 2011, Google announced via email that after April 29 they would no longer allow playback of content hosted on their service, but reversed the decision one week later to provide users with greater support for migration to YouTube. Google Video was shut down and replaced by Google Videos on August 20, 2012. The remaining Google Videos content was automatically moved to YouTube.

Well, I never got any fucking email from fucking Google because I did not have a Gmail account at the time. Or maybe I had a Gmail account and they never bothered to contact me. In the meantime I had disposed of the VHS tape and was now shit out of luck. Email to the few Tecnica returned volunteers I had contact with turned up nothing.

Searching around desperately, I discovered that a copy of the tape was in the University of Wisconsin’s historical archives for Tecnica—I guess a cardboard box sitting somewhere for people doing research on Nicaragua. I called them up to see if they could send me a copy but was upset to learn from the first person I spoke to that they did not do such things. When I remonstrated with the person about how we had risked our lives in volunteering in Nicaragua (Ben Linder was not a volunteer but our volunteers completed his project), she turned me over to the head librarian who was kind enough to have a DVD made. This is the finished product, hopefully something that will not get lost in a corporate black hole again.


October 21, 2014

Kill the Messenger

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,Film,journalism,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 5:47 pm

Given its Hollywood provenance, I expected very little from “Kill the Messenger”, a film starring Jeremy Renner as reporter Gary Webb, who after exposing the CIA’s role in facilitating Nicaraguan contra planeloads of cocaine into the USA was martyred by forces more powerful than the modest San Jose newspaper where he worked, particularly the CIA and the Washington Post, a “newspaper of record” that had a long history of covering up for the CIA no matter the reputation it earned through the Woodward-Bernstein reporting on Watergate.

Given Renner’s role as an action hero in Katherine Bigelow’s awful “The Hurt Locker” and more recently as a successor to Matt Damon in “The Bourne Legacy”, I fully expected “Kill the Messenger” to figuratively inject steroids into Gary Webb and turn him into a combination of an investigative reporter and superspy. To the contrary, the film is restrained in its presentation of Webb and the forces aligned against him. The real drama is not of the conventional car chase variety but those that take place in the conference room of the San Jose Mercury News as Webb fights to defend his integrity from hostile forces outside the paper and a management all too willing to bend under the pressure.

The film was of particular interest to me since I had spent three years on the board of Tecnica, a volunteer technical aid project for Sandinista Nicaragua, until it succumbed to the same enemies that conspired against Webb: a reactionary presidency abetted by a Democratic Party that shared its ultimate goal—to crush a revolution—while differing only on the rhetoric put forward to achieve that goal. In the late 1980s the Washington Post was all too willing to stump for the contras despite its liberal reputation as Noam Chomsky reported in “Necessary Illusions”:

In April 1986, as the campaign to provide military aid to the contras was heating up, one of the [La Prensa] owners, Jaime Chamorro, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post calling for aid to “those Nicaraguans who are fighting for democracy” (the standard reference to the U.S. proxy forces). In the weeks preceding the summer congressional votes, “a host of articles by five different La Prensa staff members denounced the Sandinistas in major newspapers throughout the United States,” John Spicer Nichols observes, including a series of Op-Eds signed by La Prensa editors in the Washington Post as they traveled to the United States under the auspices of front organizations of the North contra-funding network.

In fact the reputation of Bob Woodward was inflated to begin with, as I pointed out in a Swans article in 2005:

In 1987, Woodward wrote Veil: the Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, a book that had all the trappings of investigative journalism — especially the title. It was based on the career of William Casey, the CIA director who was a key figure in Reagan’s illegal wars. Although the book was filled with all sorts of lurid revelations (Casey thought Reagan was lazy, the King of Saudi Arabia was a drunk, etc.), it really didn’t get to the heart of why these wars took place and, more importantly, how to stop them.

The book generated some controversy that must have been a painful reminder of the Janet Cooke fiasco. An interview with the dying William Casey, who supposedly “confessed” all his contra-arms dealings to Woodward, was filled with so many inconsistencies and vagueness that the book was widely discredited. In addition, Woodward was accused of withholding important information just as he has done more recently. In Congressional hearings, Lt. Col. Oliver North testified that Casey was in on the diversion of funds from the beginning. If Woodward had Casey’s confession months before North testified, it would have been a major scoop for the Post had he come forward as well as a powerful blow against the illegal conspiracies being hatched during the Reagan presidency. But he held back in order to coincide with the publication date of his book.

Turning to the film itself, it benefited—as all good films do—from a strong screenplay written by Peter Landesman based on Webb’s 1999 “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion”. Landesman was an investigative journalist before he became a screenwriter, including time spent in places like Pakistan and covering matters such the illegal arms trade and sex traffickers. So he knows the territory and brings a verisimilitude to the story that might have been absent if developed by an industry hack straight out of film school. Landesman’s co-writer Nick Schou also has a lot of credibility as the author of “Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Epidemic Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb”, a Nation Magazine book. Schou is the managing editor of Orange County Weekly, a sister publication of the Village Voice that has somehow retained some of the integrity that was present in this alternative weekly’s roots. So, all in all, the creative team behind “Kill the Messenger” are our kinds of people.

The film begins with Webb reporting on the abuse of drug dealer property seizure by California cops, something I am intimately familiar with since my cousin Joel lost the home in upstate New York that he built with his own hands after a police raid on his property uncovered about a hundred marijuana plants he’d grown for his personal use.

On the strength of his reporting, Webb is approached by the girlfriend of a Nicaraguan émigré drug-dealer who wants his help in exposing courtroom irregularities, including the role of his accuser, a big-time dealer who is a DEA informant notwithstanding the millions of dollars he made and continues to make in the drug trade.

With a grand jury transcript that accidentally came into her hands, Webb begins a search in Los Angeles and then proceeds to Nicaragua to uncover the conspiracy that allowed planeloads of cocaine to be exported to the USA in order to raise funds for the contra killing machine.

His articles on the “Dark Alliance” make him a celebrity overnight, earning him appearances on “Nightline” and profiles in major newspapers everywhere. His reporting also sends shockwaves through the Black community suffering from an epidemic of crack cocaine. Meetings are held in South Central LA and elsewhere demanding a satisfactory explanation from the CIA. Six months after the CIA director John Deutsch speaks to an angry audience at one of these meetings, Bill Clinton fires him.

This is the real drama of “Kill the Messenger”, recreating these events without the slightest degree of exaggeration. It is a film that you can recommend to friends and relatives for Chomskyian type insights while they are being entertained. I use the word entertained in the most conventional sense since this is a brilliantly acted, directed and plotted story. The direction is of some significance since Michael Cuesta most important work prior to the film was the HBO series Showtime that is a nasty piece of Islamophobia from what I have heard.

The third act of the film consists of a counterattack by the CIA and the Washington Post that ultimately destroys Webb’s reputation, his career and his life.

Throughout the entire film, Jeremy Renner turns in a bravura performance as a fairly conventional man put into utterly unconventional circumstances. Right now he is my pick for best actor, to go along with my pick of “Kill the Messenger” for best film of 2014.

In 1999, the same year that Webb’s “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion” came out, Jeff St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn published “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press”, a book about Gary Webb’s crusade to tell the truth.

When Webb killed himself in 2004 after finally being worn down by the smears and the loss of income, Jeff and Alex wrote a memorial that read in part:

Trashed by the CIA’s Claque

Gary Webb: a Great Reporter


News came over the weekend that Gary Webb had died Friday from a gunshot wound to the head in his home in Sacramento, California. It appears to have been self inflicted. The news saddens us, and rekindles our anger at the fouls libels he endured at the hands of his colleagues.

Webb was a great reporter whose best-known work exposed the CIA’S complicity in the import of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, during the US onslaught on the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. His devastating series Dark Alliance, published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, provoked a series of wild attacks in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, purporting to demolish Webb and exonerate the Agency.

The attacks were without merit, but the San Jose Mercury News buckled under the pressure and undercut its own reporter with a groveling and entirely unmerited retraction by its publisher. It was a very dark day in the history of American journalism. We described the entire saga in detail in our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press which sets the story in the larger context of the Agency’s complicity in drug smuggling since its founding.

Their article also reprises something that Webb wrote for CounterPunch in 2001. If there’s anything that makes me prouder than contributing to the same magazine that Gary Webb wrote for, I can’t think of it.

March 21, 2001 Silencing the Messenger Censoring NarcoNews by Gary Webb CounterPunch

Not long after I wrote a series for the San Jose Mercury News about a drug ring that had flooded South Central Los Angeles with cheap cocaine at the beginning of the crack explosion there, a strange thing happened to me. I was silenced.

This, believe it or not, came as something of a surprise to me. For 17 years I had been writing newspaper stories about grafters, crooked bankers, corrupt politicians and killers — and winning armloads of journalism awards for it. Some of my stories had convened grand juries and sent important people to well-deserved jail cells. Others ended up on 20/20, and later became a best-selling book (not written by me, unfortunately.) I started doing television news shows, speaking to college journalism classes and professional seminars. I had major papers bidding against each other to hire me.

So when I happened across information implicating an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency in the cocaine trade, I had no qualms about jumping onto it with both feet. What did I have to worry about? I was a newspaperman for a big city, take-no-prisoners newspaper. I had the First Amendment, a law firm, and a multi-million dollar corporation watching my back.

Besides, this story was a fucking outrage. Right-wing Latin American drug dealers were helping finance a CIA-run covert war in Nicaragua by selling tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods in LA, who were turning it into crack and spreading it through black neighborhoods nationwide. And all the available evidence pointed to the sickening conclusion that elements of the US government had known of it and had either tacitly encouraged it or, at a minimum, done absolutely nothing to stop it.

And that’s when this strange thing happened. The national news media, instead of using its brute strength to force the truth from our government, decided that its time would be better spent investigating me and my reporting. They kicked me around pretty good, I have to admit. (At one point, I was even accused of making movie deals with a crack dealer I’d written about. The DEA raided my film agent’s office looking for any scrap of paper to back up this lie and appeared disappointed when they came up emptyhanded.)

To this day, no one has ever been able to show me a single error of fact in anything I’ve written about this drug ring, which includes a 600-page book about the whole tragic mess. Indeed, most of what has come out since shows that my newspaper stories grossly underestimated the extent of our government’s knowledge, an error to which I readily confess. But, in the end, the facts didn’t really matter. What mattered was making the damned thing go away, shutting people up, and making anyone who demanded the truth appear to be a wacky conspiracy theorist. And it worked.

October 27, 2012

Bernie McFall, ¡Presente!

Filed under: nicaragua,obituary — louisproyect @ 9:13 pm

I just learned today of the death of Bernie McFall. I have great memories of Bernie as a returned Tecnica volunteer who worked with the N.Y. chapter to oppose contra funding and to provide material aid for Nicaragua. Among all the wonderful people I got to know, Bernie stood out as a kind, gentle, affable human being with a very strong belief in social justice. I knew hardly anything about his personal background except that he was in the Peace Corps at one time and came from Kansas City, Missouri where I was born during WWII.

Here’s the obituary on Bernie that I received from the Weekly News Update on the Americas blog:

Longtime solidarity activist Bernie McFall died of complications from pneumonia in Elmhurst Hospital in Queens on Oct. 16. He was 76 and had been fighting two forms of cancer.

Bernie was a reliable presence at demonstrations, vigils and picket lines in the New York area for more than two decades, with a special focus on solidarity with the peoples of Central America, Cuba, Haiti and Palestine. During the contra war of the 1980s Bernie worked with the California-based organization TecNica in Nicaragua as a volunteer consultant on IBM mainframes. In the 1990s he traveled to the West Bank to observe conditions there, and he visited Cuba in the early 2000s.

Photo: Life or Liberty

Although he was probably best known for his dedication in handling the routine work of political organizing—photocopying, leafleting, mailing out fliers—Bernie was knowledgeable in many areas, especially Middle Eastern history. He could read an astonishing number of languages, including French, Spanish, German, Italian, Latin, Greek and some Mandarin. He studied Fijian in the 1970s when he was in the Peace Corps, and he learned Arabic in a US military school during the late 1950s, when he was stationed in Eritrea, which was then annexed to Ethiopia. Years later he would smile and say: “They wouldn’t necessarily approve of how I’ve used what they taught me.”

The New York-based Palestinian activist Farouk Abdel-Muhti was a close friend, and he was staying at Bernie’s apartment in April 2002 when a joint task force of immigration agents and the New York City police arrested him in what quickly became a cause célèbre. Bernie worked steadily in the two-year campaign that finally won Farouk’s release; the federal judge who freed Farouk described the Palestinian’s imprisonment as “Kafkaesque.” Bernie himself was threatened and harassed by the police and others during the campaign; filmmaker Konrad Aderer provides more information on Bernie’s role at the Life or Liberty website.

Bernie was involved with the Weekly News Update from its first days in 1990, working tirelessly to select and clip articles to be summarized and often arranging for photocopying. We will be joining with others to honor him with a memorial; we’ll announce the plans as soon as we know them.

A few weeks before he died, Bernie asked to make sure his books were made available to people who would make good use of them. Please contact us at weeklynewsupdate@gmail.com if you would like more information on the collection, which includes a number of books in Arabic.

Bernie’s birthday, February 2012. Photo: Rena Cohen/NYC

May 6, 2012

Michael Urmann ¡Presente!

Filed under: nicaragua,South Africa,Tecnica — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

Michael Urmann, the founder of Tecnica, one of the important Nicaragua solidarity organizations of the 1980s, is dead.

Michael Francis Urmann Nov. 20, 1944 – Apr. 28, 2012 Resident of Berkeley Michael F. Urmann, died April 28 of heart failure. Born Nov. 20, 1944, son of Frank and Katherine (Donovan) Urmann, he grew up in Pasadena, earned a B.S./M.A. (1968) in Economics from UC Berkeley, and Ph.D. at University of Utah. He taught economics for 20 years. He founded TecNica Volunteers, a nonprofit that sent supplies/technical volunteers to Nicaragua, expanding to Africa. He was active in the Free Speech Movement (1960)s, and worked tirelessly for peace and economic justice. He is survived by wife Mary Engle (Berkeley); sons David Urmann of India; Daniel Urmann (Salt Lake); son and daughter, Reed and Lily Urmann (Berkeley); mother, Katherine Urmann and sister, Nancy (Jack) Butler of Gig Harbor, WA. A celebration of his life will be held in June in Berkeley.

I first got word from his cousin, who had read my article on the death of Tecnica volunteer Paul Baizerman that had mentioned Michael. In a chilling coincidence, both Paul and Michael died of heart disease.

I was very close to Michael for about 3 years when we worked together on the project that he founded and where he served as Executive Director. As president of the board, my major responsibility was recruiting volunteers on the East Coast and serving as Michael’s chief adviser. In his trips east, he always stayed at my place and I always dropped in at his rented house in Berkeley when I was in the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, we became estranged after I voted with the rest of the board to remove him as executive director. A couple of years after the event, I wrote a letter to him trying to mend fences. I got an angry reply from Mary Engle telling me how betrayed they felt and requesting that I never write them again.

When I spoke to Hari Dillon, who had replaced Michael as executive director, a few days after my article on Paul Baizerman was posted, he told me that he had hoped to get in touch with Michael who he hadn’t spoken to since Tecnica days. I asked Hari to broker a reconciliation with Michael, if things worked out between the two of them. I was planning a trip out to San Francisco in May and looked forward to seeing both Hari and Michael.

Looking back at the board meeting that resulted in Michael’s firing, I regret having voted with the rest of the board. If I had voted against it or even abstained, our friendship would have continued.  Would it have been wrong to vote against the wisdom of the board? I suppose so but sometimes friendship trumps duty. Tecnica did not have much of a future after the FSLN was ousted in 1990 but at least I would have been able to maintain ties with a valued colleague and comrade who came out of the same sectarian crucible as me, but in his case the Maoist Progressive Labor Party rather than Trotskyism.

Like the SWP, the PLP colonized industry with the same pathetic results. Michael worked in a warehouse in the Bay Area organized by the ILWU, a traditionally leftist union. The work was backbreaking and the political payoff practically nil. After dropping out of the PLP, Michael went to the U. of Utah and earned an economics doctorate in 1981 doing a dissertation on the CIO and rank-and-file Communists that could only be written at a place like that. From the Proquest abstract:

This dissertation asserts the view that the organizing activity of rank and file Communists was an important element in the hitherto undescribed and mysterious process that led to the CIO’s rapid growth and was the basis of the strength of the CIO. It then investigates the nature of the activities as well as the character and personal backgrounds that made it possible for them to play this role. This dissertation presents a new interpretation of the role of rank and file Communists in industrial unions; it offers a new explanation for the successful creation of those unions.

In preparing this article, I learned that U. of Utah professor emeritus E.K. Hunt was Michael’s dissertation chairman. When Hunt came to the U. of Utah in 1978 Michael was already a graduate student and had assembled a lot of material about the CP’s role in organizing the CIO but nobody in the Department wanted to touch it because it was favorable to the CP.  Hunt, an occasional contributor to “Science and Society”, stepped forward and became his dissertation adviser.

Michael was a graduate teaching assistant in the economics department but never held a full-time academic job until after parting ways with Tecnica. When reminiscing about his time in Utah, Michael hardly ever mentioned the U. of Utah. His shining moment was starting up the first art movie theater in Salt Lake City. When he looked around and saw that there was none, he decided to do it himself.

The same kind of seat-of-the-pants initiative was demonstrated in a trip to Nicaragua with a group of economists around that time. Coming back to the U.S., he went to the airport to change to another flight. When the clerk had trouble working the system, Michael volunteered to come around and help him or her out. Since these were the early days of the revolution, when everything seemed possible, Michael was given carte blanche to change his flight. Flying back to the U.S., he realized that many of the country’s more skilled workers had fled. The light bulb went on over his head. Michael has his own take on the origins of Tecnica in 1984, even though he does not mention the encounter with the reservations clerk.

I should add that Michael’s article appears on a relatively new website titled Tecnica Volunteers that has lots of interesting material including the video “At Work in Nicaragua” that I digitized from a VHS tape some years ago. (Unfortunately, there is no contact information.) The video starts with Mary Engle’s observation that the first thing that hit her when she got off the plane in Managua was the heat.

My first trip to Nicaragua was with a Guardian Newspaper (the defunct American newsweekly, not the British liberal newspaper) delegation in November 1984 when Tecnica was in its infancy. A high school student in the delegation handed me a leaflet at some point with words “Programmers needed in Nicaragua” in 24 point type. That experience left me feeling like St. Paul on the road to Damascus.

As soon as I got back to the U.S., I called the number on the leaflet and volunteered for the next brigade to Nicaragua, which occurred just six months or so later. I quit my job at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and was all set on working in Nicaragua as a volunteer. From the minute I met Michael, I found that we were on the same wavelength. We had been burned by sectarian politics and were committed to the kind of broad revolutionary movement that had toppled Somoza. The best thing we could do in that period was work to build solidarity with Nicaragua to help become part of a broader process of revolutionizing Central America and then the rest of the continent. At the time our hopes were best expressed in Roger Burbach and Orlando Nuñez’s “Fire in the Americas: Forging a Revolutionary Agenda”. (Burbach eventually became a member of Tecnica’s advisory council.)

Michael persuaded me to turn down a job at the Ministry of Construction working on one of the country’s few IBM mainframes, about 1/10th the power of what I worked on at Sloan-Kettering, and returning to New York where I would start a Tecnica chapter. Over a 3-year period, we routinely held outreach meetings that drew over 100 people, many of whom became volunteers. I had missionary zeal around this project, so much so that I would allow nothing to get in the way. One time I went to an IBM PC User’s group and raised my hand during the regularly scheduled Q&A, when the typical question was something about the compatibility of some printer with MS-DOS, and starting talking about programmers being needed in Nicaragua. When the attendees starting guffawing at my intervention, the chairman told them to quiet down and invited me to the podium to finish my remarks. Those were the days.

As passionate as I was about Tecnica, nobody could match Michael Urmann for having the vision that was necessary to move the project forward. When he came to New York on fund-raising trips, he was able to convince some very powerful rich liberals to ante up. I remember his description of meetings with people like Stewart Mott, the GM heir, and Abby Rockefeller whose last name should speak for itself. Michael told me that Mott lived in a Fifth Avenue Penthouse equipped with a greenhouse. Mott had apparently become inured to pitches from the left and could barely suppress a yawn during Michael’s presentation. Abby, on the other hand, was more enthusiastic but spent much of the time hyping her own project, which was some kind of toilet that turned excrement into fertilizer right on the spot. We chuckled about this at the time but probably would have figured out some years later how important such a device would be given what John Bellamy Foster refers to as the ecological rift.

As a personality, Michael was one of a kind. Physically, his legs were disproportionately long and he strode forward on his lean frame as if he were wound up. Wearing a Woody Allen floppy hat in all seasons of the year that somehow worked with a professorial tweed jacket and tan khakis, he made his own style work. Considering the fact that he was lean as a rail, a non-smoker, and athletic (his favorite pastime was surfing), I was deeply surprised to learn that he had developed heart troubles.

Michael had an impish sense of humor that once took me by surprise. In 1987 Michael and I had met with a Cuban diplomat at their Mission in NY in order to discuss expanding the program to Cuba. This meeting apparently gave the FBI the pretext it needed to crack down on Tecnica and led to intimidating interrogations of some of our volunteers at their workplaces. They were told that we running a high-tech espionage network that ran from Nicaragua to Cuba to the USSR and that they’d better cooperate. All that because the Cubans were interested in learning more about PC’s at the time.

Out of the blue, Michael called me at work to tell me that the FBI had my name and was coming to see me at Goldman-Sachs that day. I nearly pissed in my pants. He was only joking as it turned out.

The FBI had to stop its harassment because the media called it for what it was. A Washington Post editorial from May 14 1987:

IT IS NOT ILLEGAL to travel to Nicaragua. Any American has a right to go there and to teach, repair tractors, help with the harvest or work in a clinic. Many do go, some as a concrete expression of political opposition to the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America, others for purely humanitarian reasons. This can be extremely dangerous. One American volunteer, Benjamin Linder, who went under the auspicesof a group called Tecnica, was killed there last month. And it can be unpopular, since the Sandinista government understandably does not have many friends in this country. But it is not illegal.

In spite of all this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning large numbers of those who have returned from volunteer stints in Nicaragua. More than two years ago, Director William Webster testified that about 100 people had already been interviewed, and the pace has apparently picked up in recent months. The FBI will not discuss the reasons for these interviews other than to say that they are related to “foreign counterintelligence investigations.” This may be so, but in justifying inquiries such as these the bureau has a particularly heavy — and thus far unmet — burden of proof to bear.

Tecnica continued to thrive over the next three years, so much so that Michael decided to expand the program to southern Africa. In late December of 1989, we sent a needs assessment team to Zambia to meet with the ANC that consisted of Michael, Mary Engle, myself, Jeff Klein, and Jeff’s companion whose name—like much else—escapes me now. Jeff was a colorful character in his own right. He worked as a machinist but also had advanced electronic communications skills. As a member of the CPUSA, he became “proletarianized” like so many other members of such groups, except for people like Michael and me. Jeff had studied archaeology in graduate school and even did some field work before getting a job at GE in Lynn, long a bastion of left organizing.

One day we paid a cab driver to drive us around Lusaka to get a feel for the capital city. Michael, who considered himself a specialist in household economics more than anything else, asked the driver why so many office buildings were left unfinished. His answer: you people took the construction equipment with you. Although the cabbie had no idea that we were there to fight against neocolonialism, Michael said that he felt lifted up by his militancy. Like many long-time leftists, his greatest joy was seeing people fight against their oppression.

After Michael returned to the academy, he stayed connected to the left. I never got in touch with him but tried to keep up with his activities through Google. Here he is talking on the economics crisis:


And here he is speaking at a peace rally:

March 28, 2012

Paul Baizerman— ¡Presente!

Filed under: nicaragua,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

Like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea, Google has always helped to stir up remembrances of things past: high school, Bard College, the SWP, etc. I pop a name into the search field and a flood of hyperlinked associations wells up.

Paul Baizerman on an delegation to observe the Nicaraguan elections in 2001

Yesterday I googled “Paul Baizerman” to check on my erstwhile compañero from Tecnica, a technical aid volunteer project for Sandinista Nicaragua and the liberation movements in southern Africa that existed from the mid-1980s to the early 90s. During my stint as president of the board of directors, I had come into contact with many good people, including Paul.

I was sad to discover that he died last December, a month after suffering a heart attack. A paid announcement in the NY Times stated:

BAIZERMAN–Paul, 67, died December 6, in New York City. Teacher, activist, leader, organizer, community builder, friend, mentor in New York City, Cuba and Central America. Survived by wife Yudalmy Llanes Jenky, brother, and loving family and friends.

There was also this communication from Shelley Sherman that showed up on a Yahoo mailing list dedicated to slain American volunteer in Nicaragua Ben Linder who worked with Tecnica:

We just got news that Paul Baizerman died today in New York City, accompanied by his wife Yudi and his brother, Mike. He had been really sick and in the hospital about a month. He had lost a lot of weight and was quite weak. Apparently he had a heart attack, and wasn’t strong enough to rally. We had been hoping to see him at the end of December, but only found out this weekend that he had really taken a turn for the worse. Paul was a hard worker and a committed friend. We don’t have more news yet, and I am not sure who to notify, but thought I’d start with you. Please pass the word along.



Shelley ran the Tecnica office in Managua and, like Paul, was someone I hadn’t had contact with for over 20 years.

Despite all the time I spent in conversations with him about Nicaragua work, I never asked Paul once about his political background. My tendency is to impute CPUSA affiliations to any Jew from Brooklyn (racial profiling?) but looking back in retrospect, it is probably more accurate to see Paul as not much different than me—someone who got radicalized by the war in Vietnam.

Indeed, doing a bit of research on Google yesterday led me to this conclusion. A book titled Justice, justice: school politics and the eclipse of liberalism by Daniel Hiram Perlstein mentioned Paul:

Whereas the class-based, organizationally disciplined politics of the Communist Party lacked appeal, the civil rights and peace movements animated the young activists. In the late 1950s, Susan Metz participated in the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools organized by Bayard Rustin, and later she picketed northern Woolworth’s branches in support of southern sit-ins. In college Metz was campus chairwoman of the Student Peace Union. While in college, Bronx elementary school teacher Vivian Stromberg joined campaigns against strontium-90 and bomb tests. In the early 1960s, Stromberg went south as a freedom rider. Brooklyn teacher Paul Baizerman became involved in protests against racism and the Vietnam War while attending Brooklyn College between 1961 and 1967.

I should add that Vivian Stromberg became deeply involved with Central American issues in the 1980s, serving as the executive director of MADRE.

Paul went down to Nicaragua on a Tecnica delegation mainly to support his brother-in-law Mark who was an electrician but who did not speak a word of Spanish (Paul was fluent). The two of them came back to New York totally fired up with a commitment to recruit other skilled trades people and line up material aid for state-owned enterprises that were desperately in need of spare parts and tools. Somewhere along the line I suggested to Paul that he set up a Skilled Trades Task Force to organize the work and he embraced the idea. Long after Tecnica folded, an outcome almost guaranteed by the loss of Sandinista power in Nicaragua, the task force continued providing material aid to those enterprises that clung to the revolutionary ideals of the past.

Michael Urmann

From the very moment Paul got involved with Tecnica, he clashed with the founder and executive director Michael Urmann, an economist from the University of Utah who founded Tecnica. Michael was resented by Tecnica volunteers in Berkeley who preferred a more “horizontal” model for the project. He insisted that in order for the project to do any good, it had to have a professional apparatus run like a nonprofit. I agreed with his perspective and defended his approach to people like Paul. My guess is that there would have been a lot more static if I had not served as his defender in the organization.

I grew fairly close to Michael in this period, mostly because we had a similar past. As a member of the Progressive Labor Party, he had “colonized” an ILWU-organized warehouse in the Bay Area long before my own ill-fated attempt at joining the industrial working class in 1978 and with pretty much the same results. Backbreaking work and working class indifference to his “communist” message convinced him to resign from the PLP and concentrate on an economics degree.

Despite his academic pursuits, Michael’s real passion was entrepreneurialism. After arriving in Salt Lake City to begin teaching, he was disappointed to discover that there were no good movie theaters. This led him to start his own, a decision influenced by his father-in-law’s own entrepreneurial drive.

Hari Dillon in 2004

Perhaps in an effort to buffer his own top-down and even haughty manner from the displeasure of the Tecnica rank-and-file, Michael hired Hari Dillon to serve as project director for Tecnica. Like Michael, Hari was a former member of the PLP but unlike Michael had remained an activist over the years, earning respect particularly for his anti-apartheid work.

Hari co-authored a book with Jim Dann, another PLP ex-member, titled The Five Retreats: A History of the Failure of the Progressive Labor Party. Their analysis was shared by Michael Urmann. Moreover, they came to conclusions not that different from my own. This made collaboration between the three of us all the more possible, even when Hari and I were troubled by Michael’s stubborn refusal to work with others as a team.

In November 1968, PL’ers at San Francisco State led one of the most important student strikes of the time. One of its main demands was to create a Black Studies Department, something that university presidents were far more reluctant to satisfy back then than today. For his part in the protests, Hari spent a year in prison on riot charges. One of the other key leaders of the struggle, although not a PL’er, was fellow student Danny Glover who became close friends with Hari.

In 1991 Michael Urmann’s unilateral decision-making went too far. He began making financial decisions that went against Tecnica’s board of directors’ oversight and was fired. He was replaced by Hari Dillon who tried to keep the organization going until a shortfall of donations traceable to the collapse of the Sandinista project shut our doors.

Not long after Tecnica collapsed, Hari landed a job as executive director of the Vanguard Foundation, a Bay Area funding source for many different left causes. Every so often I googled “Hari Dillon” to see what he was up to, just as I do for Michael Urmann (he appears to be a retired professor.)

After discovering that Paul had died, I checked to see if I could find a current email address for Hari to tell him the news. He probably had much less interest than I did in a figure from his past, but I felt obligated to spread the word.

What I discovered truly shocked me:

Glover fraudster faces prison

By WENN.com | Friday, November 11, 2011

Samuel Cohen, 53, approached Lethal Weapon star Glover when the actor was a director of the Vanguard Public Foundation in 2002, offering to allow the organisation to profit from a Microsoft buyout of his software company.

Glover introduced Cohen to Vanguard president Hari Dillon, and they eventually invested a total of $30 million in Cohen’s company – but the Microsoft deal didn’t exist and Cohen was no longer even working for the business he claimed was about to be sold.

A court in San Francisco, California heard Cohen spent the profits of the scam on flashy cars, priceless gems, private jets, and a luxury home.

On Wednesday (09Nov11), he was found guilty of 29 counts of fraud, tax evasion and money laundering. He is due to be sentenced in February (12).

This scandal has sent shock waves through the liberal and leftist foundation world. You can find a three partanalysis by Richard Cohen (not the dreadful Washington Post columnist) on the Blue Avocado website (part one, part two, part three) that is devoted to nonprofit issues.  To put it mildly, Hari Dillon’s mishandling of finances made Michael Urmann’s look like stealing a dollar or two from a cookie jar by comparison.

Under a subheading titled Character Counts, Cohen observes:

Dillon and many of the Vanguard people are hard to find now or won’t speak on the record, but Mouli continues to issue self-congratulatory pronouncements on his website. It’s hard to imagine that the philanthropic values of Mouli Cohen (or his wife, the author of the Kosher Billionaire’s Secret Recipe) were any kind of comfortable match with those of the foundation.

For instance, representative of Mouli’s philanthropic activities were support for the European Center for Jewish Students, which works to increase the Jewish population of Europe against the threat of intermarriage and assimilation; a Jewish orphanage in Odessa; facilities development at the Ukraine tomb of a Lubavitcher Hasidic rabbi; and a library and museum in Israel affiliated with the Lubavitcher Hasids. In addition, he claims to be a leader and donor to several organizations which mention him nowhere on their websites, including Camp Okizu, Seva Foundation, and Soroko Medical Center.

Doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who would identify with the goals of a foundation that donated money to the ANSWER coalition, does it?

Cohen adds that Dillon’s ambitions, ironically mirroring Michael Urmann’s back in the early 90s who gambled that work with the ANC would pay huge dividends, amounted to political hubris:

Hari Dillon and the donors were frustrated with what they saw as relatively little impact through making small grants to others. Instead, they dreamed of the impact and profile they could have with millions of dollars deployed directly on Vanguard’s own staff-led initiatives.

Poignantly, donors and Dillon even became convinced that they had “converted” Mouli into a progressive left-winger. They brought him to a program of “urban peace awards” for the opportunity to observe his reactions. Later they congratulated one another on Mouli’s solemn statement that he was “moved.”

Back in the early 90s, after Tecnica’s collapse, I made a mental note to myself never to get involved with the world of liberal foundations again. There is something rotten at the core of such enterprises since they are based on values that run contrary to my own socialist beliefs. When you have to rely on the generosity of millionaire liberals, who might decide that Nicaragua is not “sexy” enough for them, you are at their mercy.

Paul Baizerman, with his pronounced Brooklyn accent and love for the average Nicaraguan worker, was about as far from that world as can be imagined. The future of humanity rests on the gathering together of such people into a powerful movement that can eliminate the profit motive and usher in true democracy for the first time in our history.

Paul Baizerman— ¡Presente!

Tecnica at work in Nicaragua

September 7, 2010

Plumpy’nut and the politics of food

Filed under: health and fitness,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine section has a fascinating article titled The Peanut Solution that is focused on a food product called Plumpy’nut that is supposed to be a savior for children suffering from malnutrition in very poor third world countries. Basically, it is a mixture of peanut and other high calorie food additives that has a dramatic effect:

One doctor who decided to take a risk was Mark Manary, a pediatrician and professor, who was working at a hospital in Malawi. His malnutrition ward was crammed full of dozens of children lying on mats. “It was really an incredible burden,” Manary recalled. “These kids are deathly ill, you’re doing whatever you can for them, and you think you’re on the right track, and then you come in the next morning and four of them have died.” Manary emptied out the ward, sending his patients home with Plumpy’nut. Many malnutrition experts were horrified. “It seemed dangerous to them, and it made them afraid,” said Manary, who recalled that one eminent figure stood up at a conference and said, “You’re killing children.” In fact, when the results were analyzed, it was found that 95 percent of the subjects who received Plumpy’nut at home made a full recovery, a rate far better than that achieved with inpatient treatment.

The Malawi test emboldened Doctors Without Borders, which recognized that treating children outside clinical settings would allow a vastly scaled-up response to humanitarian emergencies. In 2005, it distributed Plumpy’nut to 60,000 children with severe acute malnutrition during a famine in Niger. Ninety percent completely recovered, and only 3 percent died. Within two years, the United Nations endorsed home care with Plumpy’nut as the preferred treatment for severe acute malnutrition. “This is an enormous breakthrough,” said Werner Schultink, chief of nutrition for Unicef. “It has created the opportunity to reach many more children with relatively limited resources.” Nonetheless, Schultink estimates that the product reaches only 10 to 15 percent of those who need it, because of logistical and budgetary constraints.

Plumpy’nut was invented by a French physician named André Briend who got the idea for the food product after opening a jar of Nutella, a hazel nut spread, one morning. Once he had put the finishing touches on it, he approached Nutriset, a French manufacturer, with a proposal to mass produce it. Briend and Michael Lescanne, the founder of Nutriset, own the patent but have licensed it almost exclusively to poorer countries, all in Africa. Attempts to get a license in more developed countries have been turned down, thus raising concerns that Nutriset is using its humanitarian reputation to protect the bottom line of a highly profitable business ($66 million in 2009). America’s sole licensee for Plumpy’nut, a 38 year old Rhode Island woman named Navyn Salem, defended the tight control:

“What we don’t want,” Salem told me, “is for General Mills to take over and put our Ethiopian producer out of business.” Opponents of the patent, however, say that Nutriset is just trying to avoid competition that would cut into its bottom line. Recently, a handful of companies have set up shop in countries where, because of the vagaries of various treaties, the Plumpy’nut patent is not in force. In the United States, two would-be competitors have taken a more confrontational route. They filed a lawsuit with the federal district court in Washington, D.C., seeking to have the patent invalidated.

Some American businesses challenging the Nutriset monopoly also appear to be mixing equal amounts of philanthropy and mammon:

The plaintiffs are a Texas-based manufacturer called Breedlove Foods and the Mama Cares Foundation, the charitable arm of a snack-food manufacturer based in Carlsbad, Calif. Both are small nonprofit organizations with strong ties to Christian aid organizations. But Nutriset’s defenders suspect that larger corporate interests are lurking in the background. In the French press, the patent dispute has been portrayed as a case of a plucky Gallic company besieged, as Le Monde put it, by “ ‘légions’ Américaines.”

In fact, there is a not-so-hidden instigator behind the case: the American peanut lobby. A few years ago, a Unicef official gave a presentation to an industry trade group, forecasting dramatically increasing demand for peanut pastes. That got the growers excited. They looked at Nutriset’s patent and came to the conclusion that, as a technical matter, Plumpy’nut was really nothing more than fortified peanut butter. “People have been making this stuff for centuries,” Jeff Johnson, a board member of the Peanut Institute, said. “It’s nothing new.” Johnson is the president of Birdsong Peanuts, one of the country’s largest shelling operations. Through a friend, he heard about Breedlove Foods, which was based in Lubbock, close to one of his processing plants. Johnson met with the company and proposed a challenge to Nutriset.

“It’s a cotton-pickin’ shame that they decided to take the stance that they have with the intellectual-property issue,” said David Fish, Breedlove’s chief executive, whose lawsuit contends that the patent is hurting starving children. But even some Nutriset critics have questioned the motives behind the lawsuit, pointing out that America has a long and controversial history of dumping its agricultural surpluses on poor countries through food aid. “If you want to develop countries out of third-world status,” Fish replies, “they’ve got to come out and compete on the open market.”

Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, a fairly long-time advocate of policies that favor the poor in developing countries (after an earlier experience in making such people poor through “shock therapy” programs), approached the Plumpy’nut controversy from an entirely different angle in this morning’s Huffington Post. While hailing an innovation that could save children’s lives, he thought that something more was needed:

It is critical, however, that we not confuse the many types of hunger and malnutrition (poor nutrition) around the world. Plumpy’Nut is not a miracle cure for global hunger or for global malnutrition. Plumpy’Nut addresses only one kind of hunger — acute episodes of extreme food deprivation or illness, the kind mainly associated with famines and conflicts. Plumpy’Nut is not designed for the other major kind of hunger, notably chronic hunger due to long-term poor diets. Nor is it designed to fight long-term malnutrition that is due to various kinds of chronic micronutrient deficiencies, such as iron, zinc and vitamin-A deficiencies.

The chronic kind of hunger is by far the most prevalent kind of hunger in the world, though it is more hidden and less recognized by the American public. As part of the UN Millennium Project, which one of us (Jeffrey Sachs) directed on behalf of then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Hunger Task Force found that chronic undernourishment accounts for more than 90 percent of global hunger, while acute undernourishment (starvation) addressed by Plumpy’Nut accounts for less than 10 percent. Of course, the acute episodes are far more widely known to the US public because those are the ones seen on TV in the context of wars, droughts, and other upheavals.

Additionally, Sachs looks at the problem of hunger from the angle of political economy, something that is ignored entirely in the NY Times article:

Our recommended solutions therefore include the following. In cases of acute malnutrition, UNICEF and other agencies should promote locally produced, quality-controlled, ready-to-use fortified foods and should resist claims of patent protection that impede local production or low-cost imports, as needed. In cases of chronic undernourishment, rich and poor governments in partnership should promote improved agriculture and dietary diversity.

Unfortunately, the goal of “improved agriculture” is not something that rich countries would shoot for if it entails a clash with the export-agriculture oriented agrarian gentry that have been in cahoots with American imperialism for the past century at least.

That was something that I was reminded of when I saw this reference in the Times article in a passage describing the operations in Navyn Salem’s Nutriset factory:

After the Plumpy’nut was mixed, it was run through overhead pipes into a contraption that squirted it into foil packets, which were sealed and ejected onto a conveyor belt, where workers packed them for shipping. In an adjacent warehouse, there were pallets of boxes labeled for delivery to Haiti, Yemen and Nicaragua.

When I visited Nicaragua in 1987, the director of a large-scale cooperative told our delegation that Nicaragua soil, enriched by volcano eruptions and steady rainfall, was the most productive in the hemisphere. You drop seeds in the ground and the crops will grow themselves. What needed to happen, however, was an end to the contra war which resulted in crops being burned, tractors being blown up and campesinos murdered.

Between 1980 and 1984, the first four years of Sandinista power, the gross product in agriculture increased by 10 percent a year. While continuing to maintain the large-scale farms that produced cash crops for export like coffee, cotton and sugar, land reform empowered smaller holdings owned by the formerly landless to produce beans, corn and other foodstuffs for the local market. It was the success of this approach that antagonized Washington, anxious to snuff out what Noam Chomsky refers to as the power of a positive example.

After Violeta Chamorro defeated Daniel Ortega in the 1990 election, she enacted “economic reforms” that were ripped from the pages of the Jeffrey Sachs of yore. The May 17, 1993 Journal of Commerce reported:

State-owned enterprises were sold or closed, the huge government bureaucracy was retrenched, and markets were thrown open to foreign trade. This sort of economic shock therapy was dictated to Mrs. Chamorro’s government by foreign lenders, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But the technocrats in Mrs. Chamorro’s inner circle believed strongly that their policies would be a magnet for foreign investors.

In other words, Nicaragua was turned into Haiti. Haiti was the hemisphere’s poorest country and now Nicaragua would land in second place.

After Daniel Ortega’s return to power in 2007, nobody expected a return to the ambitious goals of the 1980s least of all the Sandinista party that had become accommodated to global capitalism. If socialism was no longer on the agenda, the party—to its credit—was reinstating some of the egalitarian measures that benefited the poor as the website Tortilla con sal reported:

Since coming to power in January 2007 the FSLN government has brought in a number of measures aimed at increasing food security and sovereignty for the population and the nation as a whole.

The measures implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG-FOR) and other public institutions related to agricultural production include the Zero Hunger Program which aims to ensure that 75,000 rural families previously suffering varying levels of food insecurity are able to produce enough food to meet their own needs over a period of five years.

During the first two years of the FSLN government 32,359 food production packages (consisting of a pregnant cow, a pregnant sow, ten chickens, one cockerel, seeds and other inputs) were provided to the same number of families in rural areas of Nicaragua.

The government has also successfully increased the amount of basic grains being produced by small and medium farmers and agricultural cooperatives since 2007 as a result of its certified seeds program. 140,010 small and medium farmers who previously did not have access to credit to produce food were provided with zero interest in-kind loans of certified seeds and fertilizer in 2008.

Additionally MAG-FOR has overseen the implementation of the National Seed System, an inter-institutional system involving a number of public institutions. By November 2008, the national seed system had converted Nicaragua into the biggest producer of certified seeds for national production in Central America.

All this, of course, has motivated the ultraright in the U.S. to paint Daniel Ortega as a threat to American interests. As might be expected, President Obama has found their complaints seductive. In June 2009, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a government aid agency, decided to withhold $62 million from Nicaragua, a substantial sum for a poor country. The head of the agency complained that Daniel Ortega’s party had been involved in voting irregularities, a stunning complaint from a government that filled the pockets of the FSLN opposition parties with millions of dollars in 1990. As is always the case with such behavior, we are not dealing with a double standard. As Noam Chomsky once wrote:

Reigning doctrines are often called a “double standard.” The term is misleading. It is more accurate to describe them as a single standard, clear and unmistakable, the standard that Adam Smith called the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind: . . . All for ourselves, and nothing for other people.” Much has changed since his day, but the vile maxim flourishes.

From: Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy

June 17, 2010

How a young Nicaraguan changed my life

Filed under: nicaragua,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

Back in the early 1980s, when I had my first face-to-face with Peter Camejo about his new ideas for building a revolutionary movement, I asked where he got them since they were so different from anything I had ever heard. He smiled and said, “I stole them from the Nicaraguans”.

Of course, he was just making a joke of the sort that I and so many others had enjoyed over the years. But beneath the joke there was a serious message that I got a much better understanding of over the years. He was trying to say that the Marxism of Carlos Fonseca and other Latin American rebels who had been influenced by the Cuban revolution, Mariategui and other currents indigenous to Latin America had replaced the kind of doctrinaire Trotskyism he had believed in for decades.

I have now discovered that while my interpretation of Camejo’s quip was true, on another level he was being literal. He did in effect steal (or appropriate) the political approach of a Nicaraguan but ironically it was not one of the top Sandinista leaders, but a young rank-and-filer. My experience in Nicaragua in the late 1980s was almost identical. I was always astonished by the high level of comprehension of ordinary men and women in the barrios who knew more about US politics than 99 percent of the people living there.

Reading the chapter in Peter’s memoir “North Star” finally revealed to me the source of his confession about “stealing from the Nicaraguans”. As anybody who has been reading my commentary online over the years, it will be obvious that I stole my ideas from Peter who stole them in turn from a Nicaraguan.

* * * *

From “North Star: a Memoir”

Sometimes even a small event in life can bring about much greater understanding. I had such an experience in Nicaragua, one that started a change in my life.

The FSLN gathered people together for block meetings by setting a tire on fire as a way to let everyone on the block know that a meeting was about to happen. One day I came across such a meeting by accident. I can’t remember who was with me but we decided to stay. A young man, probably no more than twenty-four, stood on a box and began speaking to the whole neighborhood that had come out to listen.

As he spoke it dawned on me. The way he communicated, the message he gave, was what I had always tried to say; but he used only clear, understandable words and his message built on the living history of Nicaragua and the consciousness of the workers and their families who were listening.

He explained how Nicaragua belongs to its own people. How rich foreigners had come and taken their country from them but that they were the people who worked and created the wealth of their nation. They had the right to run it and to decide what should be done. He spoke about the homeless children in the streets and how under the U.S.-backed dictatorship nothing was done for them. He described in detail how the FSLN was trying to solve each problem. That it would take time. That Nicaragua was still in danger of foreign intervention. To never forget those who gave their lives so that Nicaragua could be a free nation. At each mention of the departed, the crowd shouted, “Presente,” to affirm that the missing ones were still with them, here. At every meeting of the Sandinistas, regardless where it was held, someone would read off the names of people from that block, school, or union who had given their lives for freedom. Everyone at the meeting would shout “Presente.”

My mind began to race. Of course this young man was not going to use terms that would lead to confusion; he would place these issues in the culture, history, and language of his people. It dawned on me—that is why this movement had won. They didn’t name their newspaper after some term from European history; they didn’t speak of “socialism” or “Marxism.” While the rest of the left of the 1960s and ’70s was in decline throughout Latin America, caught up in the rhetoric of European Marxism and the influence of Stalinism, the FSLN had delivered a great victory for freedom.

I thought about the United States—the great traditions of our struggles for justice, our symbols, our language—and how disconnected the left was from that reality. I am not sure if it was on that night or another that I had the concrete thought, “We need a paper called the North Star” the greatest symbol of our nation’s struggle for freedom. I remember keeping these thoughts to myself. I didn’t talk to Fred about it. Possibly I told Gloria, I can’t remember. But etched in my memory forever is that block meeting with the fire in the middle of street and some unknown youth changing my life.

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