Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Then they killed Walter Rodney. That was Naïve.

Walter Rodney’s continuing influence and relevance are not solely of his own doing or that of his champions. His books remain a poignant record of our historical struggles and he an example of fearless challenge to power. That should be enough to make and keep him a household name. Of course, it’s not the case. However, Rodney’s detractors contribute as much to his popularity, in small if increasing circles, despite naive attempts to diminish his work, the activism, and the person. 
This was never clearer than during the recently concluded general election in Guyana and its immediate aftermath. 

The election of May 11th 2015, returned the People’s National Congress (PNC) to power, as the leader in a coalition of parties renamed A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), after 23 years in the opposition. The Alliance for Change (AFC) also forms part of the coalition but retained its own name.

Maybe by design, the election was called during an ongoing Commission of Inquiry (COI) into Rodney’s death 35 years ago; on June 13th 1980. The losing People’s Progressive Party (PPP) had convened the COI. The PNC was the party in power at the time of Rodney’s assassination. It is expected the COI’s findings will hold that government responsible for Rodney’s death.

The COI began on April 29th, 2014 and immediately drew criticisms as being political. How could the ‘death’ of this world-renowned scholar, by bomb explosion, not be political?  The critique was expected, though disappointingly weak. Nine years earlier, the same parliament with the current government in attendance as opposition, voted unanimously for a COI but to use ‘death’ instead of ‘assassination’. It was the coalition’s pressure in parliament that forced the early elections call. Calling the commission ‘political’ required no deep thought, but may have revealed a deeply condescending attitude towards the masses: People who had a history of revolt against colonialism would not know the difference between the political from the essential and when the two coincide.

Everything is political. When we inhale, it’s political. The quality of our air, water, food and education is political. And all are essential. It was not the only critique. The coalition charged exclusion from forging the terms of reference, the general planning, and key appointments of the COI. Rodney’s widow, Patricia Rodney, received her share of criticism. Naïve was a common one. It is one still used against her husband. But she remained dignified. There was lengthy speculation for APNU on whether to participate or not: eventually, they did.

Critique of the COI merged into election rhetoric: its high cost; exorbitant salaries for the commissioners and staff, endemic corruption generally and narco-traffic; and a filthy capital city as a symptom of what is wrong.

In the aftermath of the elections the new government condemned the millions in public funds wasted on a politically motivated COI. New president, coalition leader, and former army general under the PNC government, David Granger, only days after his election victory, announced the COI must wrap-up its work. Its next sitting is to be its last. He described the COI as a failure. Others involved in the political campaign dubbed the commission a farce. It did not matter that the PNC participated as APNU.

On May 26, two weeks after the declaration of victory, and on the country’s independence anniversary, President Granger awarded Hamilton Green the country’s 2nd highest honor. Green is the capital city's current mayor, and a former Vice President, trusted enforcer, and front man persecuting the WPA under the Forbes Burnham led PNC during Rodney’s last days. The decision to deny Rodney a faculty position awarded by the University of Guyana was announced and enforced by then General Secretary of the PNC party, Hamilton Green. Fortuitously, that action precipitated a spontaneous uniting of local activist organizations that would later become the WPA; first as a pressure group and later as a political party with Rodney as a co-leader.

That movement then created the space for a larger groundswell of public resentment that eventually led to the PPP returning to the seat of power in 1992 after 28 years of PNC rule. We are back at that juncture today after 23 years of PPP misrule. With the noted difference of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), co-founded by Walter Rodney, as part of the now ruling, if nervous, coalition with the PNC as (APNU). The WPA had once worked together with the PPP against the PNC. Then add the coalition’s AFC originally formed to bridge ethnic divisions, something Rodney’s WPA pursued, though substantially to the right of that WPA.

A too common sight as cars inch along a flooded city street in Georgetown (c) Demerara Waves

As if in a fit of nervous energy and joy at the election result, residents spontaneously organized and began the process of cleaning clogged drains and immediate surroundings of debris. The government followed suit. Entrepreneurs loaned heavy equipment for the job. 

Simultaneously, as if recognizing the change and the need for cleansing, annual May-June rains came strong and hard; washing but flooding the capital city and surrounding areas. Flooding, clogged drains and garbage accumulation formed a substantial part of the coalition’s election message and against the previous government. Mayor Green claimed he was impotent to clean and maintain the city because of the prior government’s refusal to fund it. The cleaning improved the city’s looks, but seemed initially to have little effect on the flood. And residents must have wondered what, other than garbage and clogged drains, may have caused the flooding.  Perhaps, no cleaning would have meant worse flooding. A reading of any history of Guyana, including Rodney’s would have identified the real reasons for the flood. Garbage, clogged drains and broken infrastructure due to ignorance, mismanagement and corruption all contribute to the flood. But its much more complex. Tides and weather are global phenomena with local impact.

I watched volunteers and machines work, some around the clock, against the flood and saw in the struggle a vindication of what Rodney saw as wrong with the current system of government. As mechanical cranes crawled along the banks of canals that crisscross the city, clearing them of vegetation and debris, I thought of Rodney’s acknowledgement of the feats of our ancestors as captive labor. Rodney wrote, in A History of the Guyanese Working People 1881-1905, (HGWP) of the one hundred million tons of mud dug by forced labor to create the canals using nothing more than picks and shovels. It was a massive land reclamation scheme. Guyana’s coast is 5-6 feet below sea level. Its is said that for every square mile of farm land we require 49 miles of drains and 16 miles of trenches. Without this system we would be under water and unable to farm and live on dry coastal land. A review today may show it as great a feat as the Great Wall of China.

As a boy attending St. Stephen’s elementary school in the mid 1960s, I watched older boys run and leap across the canals near the school. Not all made it to the other side. Rodney was born and grew up nearby. He also attended St. Stephens. He too would have watched or leapt across those canals; he described in HGWP. I believe he still holds his high school’s, Queen’s College, high jump record. That ability would have helped him escape the security forces trying to capture him during those last days. Former President, Forbes Burnham had in a public speech noted Rodney’s athletic ability in escaping the government’s security squads the night before.

While I watched the canal jumpers and occasionally swam, Rodney completed his doctorate at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. His thesis was published as A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, but not before his handbook on Black Power, The Groundings with my Brothers. Posthumously, a year after his assassination came HGWP, which highlighted the importance of the canals but more importantly the people that dug them and maintained them and without mechanical help. Our take away, in addition to the magnitude of our achievement, is that flooding didn't begin with the return of the PPP in 1992 or any party, as one might have thought listening to election rhetoric. Colonial authorities had described villages during the rainy season as covered with huge swaths of water. Flood has always been reality in Guyana.

Punt Trench Dam. Once used for transport and drainage became a landfill for Georgetown's garbage. 

However, Rodney’s most popular book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, dealt with a different kind of flood. He may have written about Africa but it applies everywhere. It is about economies that are under water, debt ridden, because of the historical system of colonialism and neocolonialism. Like Guyana’s floods, it is a structural and systemic problem; a global tide. 

Guyana’s economy, like its coast, is underwater, underdeveloped, and a function of a global economy financed and powered on the backs of a captive labor force. Today, it's income from exports and taxes are insufficient for day-to-day operations or to contemplate new infrastructure or interest payments. And like the flooding, no amount of cleaning will solve that problem for the long term. The new government campaigned against corruption and followed through with an anti-corruption campaign of a size never seen before. Rooting out corruption is like cleaning the canals of debris. But, it is not enough.

Captive labor shoveled miles and miles of canals
Overgrown vegetation and used plastic containers that clog the canals are evidence of the runoff from the overuse of synthetic fertilizer on one hand and, on the other, hyper-consumerism, a love affair with synthetic packaging, and  with inadequate disposal systems. Both are products of the developed centers of capital. Like debris, corruption is fertilized by greed at the centers of capital demanding austerity at the periphery.

Here we need to revisit Rodney’s understanding of underdevelopment and plan development strategies that keep in mind the structural inequalities of a global system that inundated our economy with debt and interest payments. 

Debt is not all bad. As destructive as some floods may be, they don't have to be. Periodic flooding, like that in Guyana, brings nutrients to revitalize the land. Farmers often deliberately flood the land to revitalize it. Rice, our staple, is a flood crop. Similarly, debt could bring new opportunities to an old economy: that of an enslaved and later indentured society. However, flood may be good for the lands but not the people living on the lands and not long term. For a stagnant economy, debt may be a stimulant, but as a permanent condition it kills new growth and development. The dilemma is how to make debt an engine rather than an indenture.

As we watched Greece’s resistance, then submission, to international capital and Puerto Rico’s ongoing struggle, one is left curious about the Guyana government’s silence on its balance of payments. The global flood of debt is growing, rising, and claiming once developed spaces like Detroit and Spain at the core of colonial empire. A cosmetic house cleaning, investigations of corruption are great but not enough. Guyana’s new government announced it met an empty treasury. Even if it had cash, it belonged to someone else, somewhere else. We need an understanding and application beginning with the ideas in Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

Rodney warned that a new group, including his, coming in and running the system better is not a solution. It is more complex and required ordinary people to take the initiative because better does not come as a gift. If taking the initiative to clean the canals is a forward step, it is just the beginning. And calling the COI a failure and ordering its end does not bode well for Guyana’s coalition. The COI may have gone on too long, but if it is a failure then it has to be redone and that ensures Rodney’s name remains current, if not household.

His assassination is part of the debris, the debt, clogging the forward movement of a real partnership for national unity. His life and death was about political freedoms; of speech, assembly, protest and the right to work. One is either for those freedoms or not. To deny that is to ensure life in his growing shadow. It's naive. Resistance to the facts surrounding his death is not the way to clean the canals between us. Maybe there is hope when the WPA (‘Worst Possible Alternative’ Burnham’s words) and PNC become uneasy friends. Whatever chasms remain would require a leap and Walter Rodney too.

Walter Rodney,
    A History of the Upper Guinea Coast (1970)
    The Groundings with my Brothers (1969)
    A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905 (1981)
    Odeen Ishmael, The Guyana Story: From its Earliest Times to Independence (2013) Xlibris

Other Sources:
 W.A.R. Stories: Walter Anthony Rodney (A documentary on the Life of Walter Rodney 2012)

From the Margins of History: To Multiracial Equality in Guyana ( An Interview with Wazir Mohammed)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Lewis Hamilton: A study in courage presiding over a race to the real end

Clairmont Chung

MR Hamilton is a brilliant racer and a bona fide daredevil,
already a legend. But in a world where so many people
live in darkness starved of fuel, and oil extraction has
caused so much suffering to communities, global warming
and environmental activists must question motor sports:
 the misuse of fuel for the sole purpose of going fast.
Lewis Hamilton stands as the first obvious African descendant to participate in and to win a Formula One World Drivers’ Championship (F1). On Sunday, 23 November 2014, Hamilton, born in England to a white British mother and an African Grenadian father, claimed his second championship. He won his first in 2008. There are many parallels between these wins and the historic burdens of other firsts, such as the election of President Obama in the United States and the many successes of golfing legend Tiger Woods. Of course, a key difference is that F1 is a contact sport. Worse, Hamilton is now the face of perhaps the most decadent sport ever. The real question is whether he can do for this sport what Tiger Woods did for golf, lifting it from looming financial collapse and the coming critique of its excesses.

Support for Hamilton is primarily on account of his obvious ability. He is a brilliant racer and a bona fide daredevil, both courageous and already a legend. And, yes, he acknowledges his Caribbeanness and possibly, by extension, his blackness, his Africanness. Hamilton was dominant in winning 11 of the 19 races of the just completed season, six more than his closest rival and teammate Nico Rosberg. Before Hamilton, I supported European-looking drivers like Damon Hill, Jackie Stewart, David Coulthard and Hamilton’s idol, the Brazilian Ayrton Senna. I looked at their calmness under pressure and their generally ethical behavior on the track: they refused to win easy by endangering the lives of everyone at the track. Senna did have an incident at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1990 that forced out his rival, Alain Proust, and left Senna the champion. But Senna, Hamilton’s idol, was a known campaigner for drivers’ rights and safety. In 1994 Senna crashed and died in a race at Imola, Italy.

Hamilton, a boy at the time, recalled watching the Imola race on TV with his dad, and the profound pain he felt that Sunday and long after. A driver was seriously injured at practice on the Friday and another died while qualifying the Saturday before that race. That weekend reconfirmed the inherent danger in speed, and that death was more possible in this sport than perhaps any other. F1 has claimed at least 30 drivers.

Many sportspeople have been compared to gladiators. Boxing and ultimate fighting (UFC) come close. But not many go to the arena for a performance that generates the force these cars do, and where a collision can quite possibly be their last. Most gladiators of the Roman Empire were slaves forced to fight. Consistent wins and popularity could lead to freedom, and only a few were actually released from shackles. The emperor often had the last say. The greater problem for Hamilton and F1’s current Emperor, CEO Bernie Ecclestone, is not the lives consumed at the arena but those defeated away from the arena. F1 is a symbol of the rape of resources, mainly oil and rubber tied to our car culture and the waste that it produces while masking the danger with shiny machines so fast as to challenge the naked eye.

In a world where so much of the world lives in darkness starved of fuel, global warming and environment activists should be targeting motor sports and making it harder to justify the misuse of fuel for the sole purpose of going fast. In F1 fuel is needed for racing, testing, qualifying and practicing, but also to transport staff and the huge mobile offices and cars to 19 locations around the globe. Motor racing, and particularly F1, is the spectacle of the rich and nowhere this is more true than in the oil rich Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where Hamilton won the 2014 season’s last race and the championship. There is an underside to every extravagance, and in this case a huge carbon footprint too.

The Emirates’ use of foreign slave labour has been well documented but was not visible under the white tents and space age architecture at its Yas Marina track in Abu Dhabi. Men and women mostly from South Asia toil and live hidden in inhuman conditions with few rights and little pay. The excitement of race day occurs far away from the destruction of oil exploration. The insignia for Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) is splashed across a sharp turn on the track but far away from its environmental destruction of Ogoni lands in Nigeria’s delta. This year Shell announced plans to reduce its Nigerian holdings where after decades of exploration the country still suffers regular power failures and Shell has made little effort to clean up the mess. This is as it plans to expand its role in Canada’s tar sands.

In contrast to those that risk their lives for fame and fortune are those whose lives are at risk but without the promise of freedom, let alone fame and fortune. Walk Free Foundation estimated that 35.8 million people are still enslaved worldwide, defining modern-day slavery as ‘possession or control of a person to deprive them of rights with the intention of exploiting them.’[1] They publish a list of countries, beginning with the worst offenders. India and China head the list, with Russia rounding out the top 5 of 167 countries for the numbers of its people enslaved. All three of these nations host F1 races. Nigeria, number six on the list, and The Democratic Republic of Congo at seven, host no races. There are no F1 races anywhere in Africa.

More and more arable land and forests are grabbed for rubber plantations in Vietnam, Cambodia, Gabon, Cameroun and Cote D’Ivoire. Indigenous populations are threatened and displaced. Modern day slaves work the rubber plantations in Malaysia (32nd), Indonesia (8nd) and supply Singapore (141st). All three locations host F1 races. Mexico, ranked 18th, gets a race next year.

In contrast, F1 sponsors read as the who-is-who in oil, rubber, banking, cars, of course, and technology: they include Mobil, UBS, Pirelli, Johnny Walker and SAP. Only for the Abu Dhabi weekend did F1 suspend alcohol advertising. A few years ago F1 banned cigarette advertising as a bow to some moral code. Teams looked elsewhere for support and worried that they may disappear. But new sponsorships came to this fast-moving engine of consumerism and excess. F1 prides itself on its contribution to the safety and fuel efficiency of our road cars, and to our lives. But it was noticeably late when only this year did it reduce its engines from eight to six cylinders. And the lifestyle of big engines continue off the track.

The leaders of industry attend F1 events to see and be seen, usually with the gratuitous model types for effect. The rich and celebrated watch even faster moving billboards as they go round and round. The shiny yachts and private jets that crowd in for race weekends in Monaco, Yas Marina and Valencia are thumbs in the eyes of the struggling workers and regular Jeans and Joes unable to afford a ticket to the party. Instead, they may watch from grainy communal screens on their one day off, only to then prepare for the plantation on Monday.

It’s this display of glamour and speed that is used to influence consumers in a fast growing, unsafe car culture. The developing world is the fastest growing car market. The UN International Panel on Climate Change estimates the car population will triple by 2050, with 80 per cent of that in the developing world. The WHO reported 1.3 million road-related deaths in 2013, 90 per cent of those in the developing world. These represent twice as many deaths as those attributed to mosquitoes by Bill Gates’ scientists.[2] It would be the ultimate irony to survive collecting rubber in malaria-ridden rainforests and die in a car accident on a dusty street somewhere.

Despite the biweekly displays of excessive wealth at these races, F1 is in financial trouble. It seemed immune from the 2008 global recession. But Emperor Ecclestone recently admitted that the sport has financial problems and he is unsure of how to fix it. It costs US$120 million a season for an average race team, with top teams approaching a few billion. Ecclestone shares monies from advertising, ticket sales and merchandising by secret formula. Big teams like Ferrari and Mercedes demand more while lesser teams need more. The gap is widening in performance and teams are threatening to quit unless this changes. The weakest teams threatened strikes for the last few races in 2014 but they never materialized.

The Spain-based bank Santander is probably the sport’s biggest sponsor and reflects the current plight for F1 and its sponsors. It’s the sixth largest company in the world and continues to expand while it and its officers are almost under constant indictment or investigation for some transgression, such as paying two executives €164 million in a retirement package, insider trading and losing investors money through one of its Ireland-based hedge funds and involvement in the ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff to the tune of $3.1 Billion. They have been either acquitted or charges been dropped and business is as usual.

Hamilton now stands as the face of all this, though not the head of it. I love Hamilton. He has raised emotions in me that I thought no sport could again. His courage is inspiring. During a 2012 race I stood holding a chair cushion in a chokehold as Hamilton came out of what would be his final turn in the race. At the time, he was leading the Championship point’s table. The chokehold became a deadly vice, as Hamilton was about to exit the turn with Pastor Maldonado in close pursuit. I threw the limp cushion at the television as Maldonado, the brash young Venezuelan, bunted Hamilton into the wall. Hamilton stepped from his wrecked car having lost the race and his lead in the world championship title. The image was not one of defeat, but one of triumph, that of a real gladiator. I took inspiration from it. It reminded me of Amílcar Cabral’s exhortation to ‘claim no easy victories’.

Not surprisingly, media commentators reasoned that Hamilton was leading the world championship race and by allowing Maldonado through he would have avoided the wreck and scored enough points to maintain his championship lead. His tires were worn and damaged, and he could no longer accelerate at his usual speeds. He could not hold off Maldonado. Maldonado was faster at that point. Besides, Maldonado was a lap down. Why risk a tangle, the whole race, when a simple maneuver would have allowed Maldonado through? The status quo would have been maintained. They asked nothing of Maldonado.

Immediately something felt wrong about that position. It did not fit the figure of Hamilton the gladiator and world champion who puts everything on the line, takes it furthest and then some. It is an attitude lauded among the chosen captains of industry, while the rest of us, and now Hamilton, are asked to slow or move out of the way, to let someone through.

Hamilton had forced Maldonado wide going into the right-hand part of the turn. Both had a decision to make: slow or go. Both went. But the law of the sport only permits one to go in those circumstances. And it gives the benefit to the one in front: Hamilton. Why these experienced commentators failed to appreciate the law was proof of their inability to appreciate what has to happen to reach the pinnacle of success, particularly if one is of African descent.

Understandably, commentators say nothing about decadence of motor sport, and F1 racing as the most decadent of all. Several times during the Abu Dhabi race, cameras would pan to the obligatory shiny yachts bobbing in the Yas Marina as in most other race locations. It has made Europe’s economic high-wire act seem a lie. The machines, the drivers, the rubber, the fuel, all cost millions. Each team goes through more tires in a weekend than the average person in a lifetime. Add to that the cost to transport these teams to nearly two dozen countries each season. Then add the lives that make it possible, from those lands devastated by rubber plantations and oil spills, suffering in the dark, thinking of a car as a step up.

Hamilton emerged as a star in a sport reserved for white men. He eclipsed all in daring and talent. We can see that this is no ordinary man of any kind. At the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, former F1 driver and BBC commentator David Coulthard described Hamilton’s overtake of teammate Rosberg by saying, ‘That was bravery in the extreme,’ and, ‘That is an overtake other drivers will remember.’

Hamilton’s success may be reconciled as an example for ordinary people of courage and achievement. But nothing in the F1 party weekend can be reconciled; nothing in that experience can be reconciled with the lives of ordinary people. His talents and courage cannot mask the socioeconomic and political meaning of a spectacle like the F1 race, and more than likely cannot save F1. In the Abu Dhabi race Hamilton only needed to finish second to win the championship. Second would not be enough for a champion. Even when his closest rival ran into electrical problems, and Hamilton only had to finish and the crown would be his, he instead fought and won. Such a shame that he is champion of something that has probably run its course.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Racism is Corruption

Transparency International defines corruption, as "the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” Then it lists the least and most corrupt nations. Not surprisingly, the ‘wealthiest’ are the least corrupt. Not only is this definition at the core of all oppression, but also at the core of White supremacy, aka racism, and all other kinds of discrimination like gender, age and ethnicity. It is at the core of slavery, colonialism, neo colonialism and whatever you choose to call the current system.

Figure 1 Reposted in an Article by Michael B. Kelly, Business Insider,

So something is seriously wrong when the wealthiest most developed nations, built on the backs of oppressed, become models of ethics.

Corruption kills

Racism is a ‘private gain’ reserved for one race at the expense of another. Police power is ‘entrusted power’ that protects any challenge to the corruption. The killing of the poor, and this too often means 'Black', is a gain to whom; which private interest? We need only look at the whole of the history since Columbus to see which private gain. The Columbus expedition as well as the Dutch West India Company and the British West India Company were private corporations, with entrusted power, protected by the state.
Figure 2 Reprinted from an Article by Michael B. Kelly in Business 
Insider, The 17 Most Corrupt Countries, 12/3/14

So how is it that Europe, its allies and satellites, sit at the top of the ladder as the least corrupt?

These same nations sit atop the ladder as the greenest countries according to The Climate Reality Project. The beneficiaries of this continuous exploitation and extraction of human and other resources smile contentedly as the cleanest, greenest and furthest away from the ravages they have wrought elsewhere.

The corruption reality and the green reality is just an extension of the same thing. It must be real nice to be on top.

The Climate Reality Project
This is not to ignore what is going on in the ‘least green’ and ‘most corrupt’ nations. Look at 17 most corrupt and then think about recent US and Allied military intervention.  Oh what would it be like to be on top or be the beneficiaries and not the victims of ‘development’? Our reality says, not much different and, that Mike Brown and Eric Garner are the latest in 400 years of history and even before. 

Corruption is the seemingly unstoppable virus and its everywhere even among well-meaning social commentators who with a smirk claim the best for themselves. Racism is corruption by another name: but its not factored into the index by Transparency International.