All posts by Yanis Iqbal

USA’s Strangulation of the International Criminal Court

On 2 September, 2020, the US sanctioned two officials of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigating into alleged war crimes by US forces and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Afghanistan since 2003.The officials are ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, and the ICC’s head of Jurisdiction, Complementary, and Cooperation Division, Phakiso Mochochok (sanctioned for having materially assisted Prosecutor Bensouda). Announcing this decision, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said, “the United States is taking action to protect Americans from unjust and illegitimate investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which threatens our sovereignty and poses a danger to the United States and our allies…The ICC’s recklessness has forced us to this point, and the ICC cannot be allowed to follow through with its politically-driven targeting of U.S. personnel.”

The sanctions have racially targeted the two African individuals among the five officials in the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP). Despite possible links to the Afghanistan investigation on account of their judicial positions, the US has chosen not to sanction Director of the Investigations Division Michel de Smedt, Deputy Prosecutor James Stewart, and Director of the Prosecutions Division Fabricio Guariglia.

Through the sanctions, Bensouda and Mochochok have been included in the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list, maintained by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The consequences of being designated include:

  • “any assets the person has in the United States are frozen;
  • the individual can no longer conduct transactions in U.S. dollars which may occur anywhere in the world;
  • persons, including financial institutions, cannot conduct transactions with or provide services to the designated individual;
  • the designated individual and their family members are barred from entering the United States; and
  • anyone who materially assists the designated individual can themselves be designated.”

American Hostility toward ICC

The US government’s hatred of the ICC boils down to one primary concern: the possibility that US citizens may be prosecuted and convicted by the court for grisly conduct supported by the American empire. As a result, the US has been in conflict with ICC from the start, trying to subvert its judicial capacities. One month after the ICC officially came into existence on July 1, 2002, US President George Bush signed the American Service members’ Protection Act (ASPA), which limited U.S. government assistance to the ICC; curtailed military assistance to countries that ratified the Rome Statute (the treaty establishing ICC); and authorized the President to use “all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release” of certain U.S. and allied persons who may be detained or tried by the ICC.

As the US believes that ICC is a threat to its imperialist excesses, top officials of the country have never relented in their vituperation and destabilization of the intergovernmental organization. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called ICC a “kangaroo court”. Similarly, Attorney-General William Barr said that the US Justice Department had “received substantial credible information that raises serious concerns about a long history of financial corruption and malfeasance at the highest levels in the office of the prosecutor.” President Trump, while addressing UN General Assembly, stated, “United States will provide no support or recognition to the International Criminal Court. As far as America is concerned the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority.” Such villificatory language reached its apogee when John Bolton gave a speech to the Federalist Society in Washington, D.C on 11 September, 2018. During the speech, he dubbed ICC as (1) a “supranational tribunal” that targeted “America’s senior political leadership” and (2) a “free-wheeling global organization claiming jurisdiction over individuals without their consent.” If that was not enough, he further said in a thuggish tone: “The United States will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court. We will not cooperate with the ICC. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

The Afghanistan Investigation

In November 2017, the currently sanctioned Prosecutor Bensouda asked for authorization from the ICC’s judiciary to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes by the Taliban and their affiliated Haqqani Network; war crimes of ill-treatment by the Afghan intelligence agency National Directorate for Security and the Afghan National Police; and war crimes of torture by US military forces deployed in Afghanistan and in secret detention facilities operated by the CIA. Bensouda requested a full investigation because US administrations and courts have consistently chosen not to prosecute the torturers. While torture was banned in 2009 by former President Barack Obama, the torturers were allowed to get off scot-free. Talking about this decision to award impunity to the torturers, Obama had said, “You know, it is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.”

In response to this potential investigation, the US revoked Bensouda’s entry-visa on 4 April, 2019 and Pompeo hubristically stated, “I’m announcing a policy of US visa restrictions on those individuals directly responsible for any ICC investigation of US personnel…If you’re responsible for the proposed ICC investigation of US personnel in connection with the situation in Afghanistan you should not assume that you still have, or will get, a visa or that you will be permitted to enter the United States,”.

Facing the US-sponsored public campaign of defamation and aggressions, the Pre-Trial Chamber II of the ICC rejected Bensouda’s request on 12 April, 2019, – 8 days after the visa revocation- expressing concern over (1) the “availability of evidence for crimes dating back so long in time”; (2) the prospect of attaining meaningful cooperation from relevant actors; and (3) the “significant amount of resources” necessary to fund this sort of investigation considering the ICC’s budget. The Pre-Trial Chamber believed that there was no reasonable basis to believe the investigation served “the interests of justice” although it accepted that there was a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed in the territory of Afghanistan by various actors.

The rejection of Bensouda’s request was closely tied with USA’s attempts to prevent its imperialist cruelty from being fully exposed by a judicial body. Article 15 of the Rome Statute provides that “victims may make representations to the Pre-Trial Chamber either in support or opposition to the Prosecutor’s request for an investigation.” In Ms. Bensouda’s case, 680 out of 699 applications submitted to the court by victims and victims groups welcomed the requested investigation. Despite the support of the victims, the US unilaterally impeded the investigation, nakedly asserting the ruthlessness of its imperial power.

To contest the rejection of Bensouda’s Afghanistan investigation, the OTP and the legal representatives of 3 victims appeared before the Pre-Trial Chamber in June 2019. Six months later, the Appeals Chamber of the ICC held a three-day public hearing where the OTP, victims’ representatives, the defense lawyer of the Afghan government and several civil society members presented their arguments against or in support of the Pre-Trial Chamber’s decision. After this public hearing, the Appeals Chamber of the ICC decided unanimously on 5 March, 2020, to authorize the Prosecutor to commence the investigation into the crimes committed on the territory of Afghanistan since 1 May 2003, as well as other crimes that have a nexus to the armed conflict in Afghanistan and were committed on the territory of other States Parties, including Poland, Romania and Lithuania by the US army and CIA.

Enraged by ICC’s actions, President Donald Trump issued an executive order  on 11 June, 2020, that authorized asset freezes and family travel bans against ICC officials and potentially targeted others who assist ICC investigations. In the executive order, Trump said that the authorization of investigation into US war crimes in Afghanistan threatens “to infringe upon the sovereignty of the United States and impede the critical national security and foreign policy work of United States Government and allied officials”. Building upon these unfounded claims, he went on to say: “I therefore determine that any attempt by the ICC to investigate, arrest, detain, or prosecute any United States personnel…constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.” All these statements amount to an arrogant declaration of impunity for any American involved in war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Furthermore, through these conceited declarations, the US is blatantly asserting that it is justified to kill people in pursuit of expansionist aims.

USA’s Contorted Arguments

In view of the audacity shown by the ICC in authorizing the Afghanistan investigation, new sanctions have been imposed on two ICC officials in the contemporary period. To legitimize its aggressive actions against the ICC, the US has relied on contorted legal arguments.

Repeatedly, the US has declared that it is not a party to the Rome Statute that created the ICC and, being a non-signatory national, is not bound by the norms created by the ICC. Contrary to this reasoning, the core crimes within the ICC’s jurisdiction-genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes-are crimes of universal jurisdiction and thus, the nationals of the US can be subject to prosecution before the court. Echoing this point, the UN General Assembly has declared: “States shall co-operate with each other on a bilateral and multilateral basis with a view to halting and preventing war crimes and crimes against humanity, and shall take the domestic and international measures necessary for that purpose.” Moreover, nationals of non-Party States have long been exposed to potential prosecution without the consent of their governments. The US itself has accepted this by becoming party to treaties such as the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention against Torture which obligate the parties to pursue the malefactor regardless of whether they are a national of a state that is party to the treaty in question.

By punishing the ICC for attempting to expose the barbarism of its war on Afghanistan, the US has overtly outlined the coercive foundations upon which its empire is built. Slowly and steadily, it is becoming clear that the US is guided by imperialist interests and is willing to flout any law to expand its empire.

The post USA’s Strangulation of the International Criminal Court first appeared on Dissident Voice.

USA’s Militarization of Latin America

Maj. Gen. Andrew Croft, the commander of 12th Air Force, wrote on 22 August: “I have seen an increasingly contested strategic space where Beijing and Moscow are aggressively investing time and resources in Latin America to support their authoritarian models of governance. The Air Force must reinforce the strength of our longstanding commitment to the Western Hemisphere. We lose ground when we are unable to commit to spending the time and resources to fly our aircraft south and train alongside our partners.”

Croft’s statement reflects the growing American hysteria against the presence of any extra-regional actors in the Latin American continent. For US policy-makers, Latin America is not an aggregation of sovereign nations but a large lump of subordinated states constituting “America’s backyard”. Consequently, this conceptualization of Latin America as a natural extension of the American empire has led to viewing the engagement of any South American country with China, Russia and Iran as a “threat” to peace and security.

On February 7, 2019, Admiral Craig S. Faller – the commander of the United States Southern Command – told the Congress that the Western Hemisphere is facing “a troubling array of challenges and threats”. These threats included alarmist assertions about the growing dominance of China, Russia and Iran and a general demonization of the socialist governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua: “China has accelerated expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative at a pace that may one day overshadow its expansion in Southeast Asia and Africa. Russia supports multiple information outlets spreading its false narrative of world events and U.S. intentions. Iran has deepened its anti-U.S. Spanish language media coverage and has exported its state support for terrorism into our hemisphere. Russia and China also support the autocratic regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, which are counter to democracy and U.S. interests. We are monitoring the latest events in Venezuela and look forward to welcoming that country back into the hemisphere’s community of democracies.”

In response to the perceived threats posed by the China-Russia-Iran nexus, the Secretary of Defense has decided to conduct an assessment of the sufficiency of resources available to the U.S. Southern Command, the U.S. Northern Command, the Department of State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to carry out their respective missions in the Western Hemisphere. This assessment is required to include “a list of investments, programs, or partnerships in the Western Hemisphere by China, Iran, Russia, or other adversarial groups or countries that threaten the national security of the United States.”

In addition to warlike preparations, USA has also pursued a policy of increased militarization wherein it has tried to ensure “technological superiority” with regard to “anti-US actors”. In March, 2020, USA decided to send additional ships, aircraft and forces to South America and Central America in order to combat the influence of Russia and China. According to Navy Adm. Craig Faller, commander of Southern Command, “This really was born out of a recognition of the threats in the region,”. Along with the mobilization of the Southern Command, USA has substantially enlarged its security aid to Latin America: From $527,706,000 in 2019, US security aid to Latin America has increased by 10% to $581,270,000.

Chinese Footprint

The present-day US militarization of Latin America is rhetorically driven by an imperialist discourse framing the continent as a possession of the American empire which China, Russia and Iran are trying to appropriate. To take an example, R. Evan Ellis, a Latin America Research Professor at the US Army War College, told before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission that China’s engagement with Latin America “threatens the position of the United States, our security and prosperity, and the democratic values, rights, institutions and laws on which we depend.” To substantiate his statements, Ellis enunciated various strategies through which China is undermining USA’s dominance:

  • “Trade with, loans to, investment in, and other forms of economic and other support to anti-US regimes, indirectly enabling their criminal activities and contributions to regional instability”.
  • “Through providing an alternative to commerce, loans and investment from the West, making governments of the region less inclined to support the US on political, commercial, or security issues, or to stand up for rule of law, democracy or human rights, particularly where it might offend the PRC;”

In both these points, one can observe the imperialistic high-handedness with which Ellis is declaiming his pro-US rhetoric. While Beijing’s efforts to engage with sovereign nations and construct an alternative to the global American empire are regarded as enabling “regional instability”, no questions are asked about USA’s expansionist quest to imperialize the entire world through militaristic tactics.

In order to vilify China and smear its non-aggressive foreign policy, hawkish security experts have framed the country’s diplomatic involvement with various Latin American nations as a type of authoritarian tactic. Using this line of reasoning, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) writes: “Beijing has now officially established its own version of soft power… which emanates from its undemocratic system and rests on its ability to shape the viewpoints of others through co-optation and persuasion.” Not having any empirical evidence to prove its unconvincing statements, NED talks vaguely about the “hypnotic effects” exercised by “Chinese-style warm welcome”: “The Chinese-style warm welcome, the carefully selected tours that include visits to sites with symbolic historical and cultural significance, and ad hoc friendly discourse delivered by the Chinese hosts can have hypnotic effects on their foreign guests.” This is an indication of the extent to which America hysteria against China can reach.

In the same way as NED, the Brookings Institution has also tried to slander China’s diplomatic initiatives in Latin America to preserve the coercive dominance of USA in the continent. As per the think tank, “it would be fair to assume that China’s growing economic power and ambitions of global leadership, coupled with its inherently closed and repressive model of political control, will hurt the region’s prospects for strengthening its liberal democratic systems and respect for human rights.” While saying this, the Brooking Institution conveniently forgets that it the US, with its Western-styled liberal democracy, that has hurt the region most in the form of coups, violence and overt brutality against social movements. Most recently, a US-backed coup in Bolivia has resulted in two massacres and massive repression of social movements.

The Iranian Connection

Like China, Iran, too, experiences American hostility towards its engagement with Latin American countries. Lieutenant Andrew Kramer of the U.S. Navy terms Iranian support for the “economically backward governments” of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela as efforts “to maintain pockets of instability and hostility close to U.S. borders.” Echoing this perspective, William Preston McLaughlin, a Colonel (Ret.) of U.S. Marine Corps and Magdalena Defort, an Intern Analyst at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies, argue that “Iran’s presence in Latin America is an imminent threat to peace and political stability in the Western Hemisphere because its forces interact with Latin America’s deeply rooted revolutionary ideology and various well-intentioned but flawed “liberation theology” social movements.” Here, both of the analysts are merely parroting the imperialist “Monroe Doctrine” that subverted the sovereignty of Latin American nations and tethered the people of the continent to the whims of the American empire. Through the Monroe Doctrine, USA relegated the entire Latin American continent to the status of the empire’s handmaiden and constantly used its military muscles to overpower any regional initiatives challenging the dynamics of subjugation. Now, when Iran is lending support to the anti-imperialist administrations of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, it has come under the radar of USA for ostensibly destroying peace and political stability in the Western Hemisphere. In August 2020, for instance, USA confiscated four Iranian fuel shipments that had been bound for Venezuela, making it clear that it would not tolerate anti-imperialist opposition in Latin America.

In addition to portraying Iran as a threat to global peace, both the analysts also used a shrill, scaremongering rhetoric to over-exaggerate the strength of the country. According to the analysts, “Iran has used every agency within its borders to help extend Iranian tentacles into the political, cultural, economic, and military life of Latin America.” This bears striking resemblance to the traditional war-mongering US narrative that frames Hezbollah as a menace to justify the militarizary raising funds, seeking recruits, probing for our weaknesses and challenging our defenses,”. Through these discourses, USA seeks to unleash a new war against the anti-imperialist axis of Latin America which is standing up to militaristic predatoriness of the global hegemon.

Russian Presence

Besides Iran and China, Russia is another nation perceived as a “threat” to US security. General John Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) noted in his Congressional testimony, “it has been over three decades since we last saw this type of high-profile Russian presence” in Latin America. In his command’s 2015 Posture Statement, Kelly added: “Periodically since 2008, Russia has pursued an increased presence in Latin America through propaganda, military arms and equipment sales, counterdrug agreements, and trade. Under President Putin, however, we have seen a clear return to Cold War tactics. As part of its global strategy, Russia is using power projection in an attempt to erode U.S. leadership and challenge U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere.”

John Kelly’s representation of Russia as a military threat has been repeated by the Commander of US Southern Command, Admiral Kurt W. Tidd who said in his February 2018 Posture Statement to the US Senate Armed Services Committee that: “Russia’s increased role in our hemisphere is particularly concerning, given its intelligence and cyber capabilities, intent to upend international stability and order, and discredit democratic institutions…Left unchecked, Russian access and placement could eventually transition from a regional spoiler to a critical threat to the U.S. homeland.” With the help this narrative, USA has aggressively pushed forward the agenda of greater militarism in Latin America as it strives to maintain “technological superiority” in relation to Russia and expand its already large military expenditure.

On the top of depicting Russia as a military threat, US analysts have additionally portrayed the country’s support of socialist governments in Latin America as a danger to the economically empty liberal democracies of the West. According to IBI Consultants, a National Security consulting company specializing in Latin America, Russia’s growing presence in Latin America “is now an integral part of an alliance of state and nonstate actors that have shown their hostility toward the United States in their ideology, criminalized behavior, and anti-democratic nature.” Reiterating this point, on July 9, 2019, Admiral Faller declared before the Congress that “Russia seeks to sow disunity and distrust, propping up autocratic regimes in Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which are counter to democracy and U.S. interests.” For Faller, those nations which don’t doggedly toe America’s imperialist line automatically become “threats” to democracy and if Russia shows solidarity with these anti-imperialist nations, it, too, classifies as a threat to US interests.

As USA continues to militarize Latin America, it is increasingly becoming clear that it wants to protect its old, imperial structures from being challenged by anyone. It has been explicitly acknowledged even by pro-US analysts such as Ellis that US military assistance in Latin America “potentially serves U.S. strategic interests by helping to inoculate receiving states against radical or anti-democratic [read “socialist”] solutions which find receptivity when populations lose faith in the ability of a democratic political system and a free market economy to effectively address the corruption, inequality, injustice, and other dysfunctionalities plaguing their country [Emphasis mine].” US military assistance, therefore, is not apolitical and is ideologically tarnished with the objectives of stabilizing free market economies-bourgeoisie democracies and subverting socialist countries.

The United States Intelligence Community’s assessment of threats to US national security had stated in 2019 that “anti-US autocrats [in the Western Hemisphere]will present continuing challenges to US interests, as US adversaries and strategic competitors seek greater influence in the region.” Here, “anti-US autocrats” refers to the socialist administrations of three Latin American countries: Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. These three countries have been facing strong US belligerence for their anti-imperialist stance. US sanctions against Cuba have tightened during the pandemic; USA’s hybrid war against Venezuela has intensified as Trump has decided to use frozen funds to topple Nicolas Maduro and USAID (United States Agency for International Development) has strengthened its regime change operations against the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Due to the support lent by China, Russia and Iran to the socialist governments of Latin America, USA has decided to eradicate these extra-regional actors from its “own” backyard and re-proclaim a complete American dominance in the region. In times like these, the international community needs to oppose the militarism of USA against new regional alliances in Latin America.

Environmental Disaster and Health Crisis in Cerrejon

At Cerrejon (Colombia), the largest open-pit coal mine in Latin America owned equally by BHP (Australia), Anglo American PLC (United Kingdom) and Glencore (Switzerland), the situation of the indigenous people is progressively worsening. Cerrejon Limited has informed the workers that “all the existing shifts will be unified into a single 7-day work, for three days off.” With the enforcement of the new shifts, “workers would go from working 15 to 21 days and the mine would go from 4 to 3 shifts, leaving at least 25% of the current workforce unemployed.” The new shift pattern is likely to aggravate the health of workers as long working hours increase the number of work-related pathologies. Current work shift arrangements have already led to more than “700 pathologies associated with musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular and ear diseases, among others.” As the level of work becomes more stressful, these occupational diseases will start multiplying.

The present-day actions at the Cerrejon mine are one among the myriad manifestations of transnational capital’s cruelty. Cerrejon mine is located in the dry department of La Guajira which is home to more than 900,000 people. 45% of the population is indigenous, with most of the people belonging to Wayuu and the remaining coming from smaller groups such as Arhuacos, Koguis and Wiwas. 8% of the population is Afro-Colombian, thus making La Guajira the department with the highest presence of indigenous people in Colombia. When mining companies arrived in 1983 in La Guajira, they encountered these indigenous people as an obstruction in the path of development. Consequently, the appropriate solution to this problem was the initiation of “development-induced displacement.”

In 1981, the brutal behemoths of mining began shredding the social fabric of indigenous existence and left deep scars of development on the collective psyche of indigenous people. In order to make way for the Puerto Bolivar Port, mining multinationals chose to systematically exterminate the Wayuu village of Media Luna. Paradoxically, negotiations began after the displacement in which “Some 750 residents who lived in Media Luna entered into negotiations with the company for their collective relocation, but were targeted with anonymous threats of violence, which appeared to be linked to the negotiations and later led to the collapse of talks…. Subsequently, the company ordered the village to relocate for a second time and, when seven families refused, a metal fence was erected around their homes and armed guards stationed to watch over – a strategy interpreted to intimidate them into leaving.” This was a particularly counter-intuitive way of conducting negotiations wherein irregular violence, strategically organized arm-twisting and silent terrorization forced the Wayuu into accepting development.

The largest displacement came later in August 2001 when the Afro-Colombian community of the Tabaco village was violently dragooned into fleeing from the region. Eviction happened through the carefully coordinated action of the military, police and armed forces, interspersed with the presence of marauding bulldozers. Ines Perez, one of the victims of the calibrated evisceration of Tabaco, said that “The community was evicted from the land by force, with anti-riot police, in cold blood. We were thrown off our land. They destroyed our homes with machines. They punched us. They hit me and my papa. We were left nearly in a coma, with the houses torn down, in ruins. We’ve been struggling for 13 years and we’re still fighting for our health, for our food, for everything. We are demanding to be relocated and to receive compensation. We just want our lives back.”

Cerrejon mining companies have, till date, no qualms for plundering, gutting and decimating an entire village through an expeditious eruption of violence. Comprehensive reparations, relocation and apportionment of productive lands have not occurred. Even where such processes have commenced, the efforts are insubstantial and inadequate. Samuel Arregoces, a former inhabitant of Tabaco, expresses the plight of those who have been devastatingly relocated and impoverished by the dehumanizing operations of money-grubbing mines: “They destroyed the entire village. They took all our land away. We lost all our livestock, everything. They relocated us to other districts, where we now live in poverty since we cannot grow anything. Where we used to live, where the Tabaco river flows, we grew cassava, maize and bananas. For many years, our cattle grazed the land and we also had fruit trees, but today we have to buy everything. We have become destitute, since we no longer have a village.”

Another catastrophic byproduct of Cerrejon mining operations has been the unprecedented and utter ransacking of regional ecosystems. Open-pit mining is environmentally destabilizing because it “flattens mountains and devastates ecosystems. In this process, forests are clear-cut to expose the tops of mountains, which are then blown off with explosives. Coal is extracted using large machinery and the unused soil and rock are dumped into adjacent valleys, filling them up and creating a flat landscape.” After this, “New, gigantic, flat-topped walls of debris called overburden are dumped between tiny communities and along the periphery of open pit mines. They swallow farmers’ fields, impede the movement of grazing animals, disrupt rivers and streams, and leach poisons into the earth and water.”

The cultural loss associated with this disruptive process is profound as territories are spiritually significant for indigenous collectivities such as the Wayuu. In Wayuu community, communication with ancestors is a part of the primordial ethics of indigeneity and this happens primarily through the interpretation of dreams. The dream world, therefore, is the main modality for dialoguing with spirits and ancestors. But Wayuu people can only dream when they live on their own sacred territories. Correspondingly, when sacred territories are destroyed by open-pit mining, Wayuu lose their ability to dream and get culturally stripped of their distinctive identity.

Apart from cultural loss, Cerrejon mining extractivism has ecologically-materially impacted the department of La Guajira through two phenomena: water scarcity and high levels of pollution. In La Guajira, “people are dependent on tributary streams and their corresponding aquifers as a water source for agriculture, household use, and animal ranching”because the department “is a drought-prone region with two rainy seasons that are unpredictable and inconsistent.” Rivers are, therefore, extremely important for the existence of indigenous communities. Cerrejon Limited has apparently failed to comprehend the importance of rivers and has been trying consistently to completely colonize the rivers.

In 2012, Cerrejon companies had tried to divert 26km of the Rancheria River (the primary source of water) to access the 500 million metric tons of coal contained underneath the river bed. But this planned diversion was met with organized resistance and Wayúu spokesperson Jazmin Romero Epiayu has appropriately described the social unity with which the diversion was met: “In 2012, the proposal of this multinational was to divert the Ranchería River, the principal river we have in our department, and the principal river that feeds the whole department of La Guajira… Since before colonialism this [river] has represented the veins of Mother Earth, Wounmainkat, which is to say, it’s the blood of the earth. And one of the proposals in 2012 was to divert this river we have because below it there were 500 million tons of coal. But what did we say? Us, Wayúu communities, Afro-descendant communities, campesino communities, the union, the magistrates… all these sectors united in protest to stop the diversion of this river.”

Despite the united efforts of the La Guajira community, the Rancheria River has been contaminated by the mining companies. According to a study by Fulbright researchers, the Rancheria River contains high levels of mercury, making it potentially dangerous for consumption. Furthermore, the Cerrejon mine consumes more than 24 million litres of water per day (which is equivalent to the consumption of more than 70,000 people) while the Wayuu people don’t even “have access to the basic requirement of 2 l of water per person per day for cleaning and for preparing food.” Due to the aggravated effects of water scarcity, approximately 5000 children of the Wayuu tribe died in the 2007-17 period.

Not contented with contaminating water, cumulatively increasing the hardships of the Wayuu tribe and killing children, Cerrejon mining companies have embarked on a neo-colonial voyage to divert the Arroyo Bruno stream to the La Puente pit. Bruno stream has 40 million tons of coal reserves under its river bed, a valuable treasure for avaricious mining corporations. On July 8, 2020, the affected communities of La Guajira visited the artificial channel and natural channel of the Arroyo Bruno stream and observed that “the company plugged the natural channel to divert the waters in 3.6 kilometers to the new artificial channel. The alarming thing is that there is no water in either of the two channels. This situation worries the experts…who warn that the Bruno stream is at high risk of disappearing.”

In order to completely colonize the river, the company has tried three times to displace El Rocio, the community living on the bank of Arroyo Bruno. In spite of Cerrejon Limited’s aggressive efforts at strong-arming indigenous people, the general mood is militant in the department and the following statement from the Guajira Dignity Group reflects the anti-imperialist fervor of the masses: “The government cannot continue granting mining titles here, and Cerrejón cannot come every two years and say – we are planning the deviation of this stream – and tomorrow another, and so on. We have to limit this expansion because this is a deserted region and has a limited water supply. Cerrejón cannot continue diverting streams to increase profits.”

Pollution levels in La Guajira are high due to the spontaneous ignition of mined coal, daily coal blasts and coal dispersal happening due to the movement of open-top coal wagons every day. This has led to a staggering number of people afflicted with respiratory diseases, indicated by the fact the 48% of the patients arriving at the local hospital Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Our Lady of Pilar) suffer from acute respiratory problems. Air pollution has made the indigenous communities of La Guajira more vulnerable to Coronavirus as it has been found that air pollution is directly correlated to an increased Covid-19 death risk.

In La Guajira, children are more likely to get negatively affected by the presence of toxic materials and pollutants in air, soil and water. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, “Children are more vulnerable to the localized environmental impacts of mining activity than adults – particularly water, air and soil pollution – due to their progressive and incomplete physical development; the fact that they spend more time playing than adults and hand to-mouth behaviour that makes children more likely to ingest pollutants; and their varying stages of mental development, for example, inability to read hazard and warning signs.”

As the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on La Guajira, it is becoming clear that transnational coal interests have existentially damaged the indigenous communities. Through years of imperialist pillage, multinational mining companies have converted La Guajira into one of the poorest departments of Colombia with 65% of the population living in poverty. Decades of coal mining by corporate giants to quench the coal thirst of Europe and USA has methodically undermined local agricultural arrangements and disallowed indigenous communities from achieving food sovereignty. Eder Arregoces Pinto, president of Chancleta’s community action council, pithily encapsulates the adverse effects of large-scale mono-industrialization: “It [Cerrejón Coal] may be one of the largest coal mines in Latin America but most families here can eat only one meal a day.”

Pollution and water scarcity have drastically weakened the collective health of indigenous communities and now, these immiserated people are left unprotected from the virus. Luz Ángela Uriana, an indigenous woman from Province Reserve in the south of La Guajir, painfully expresses the historical injustice which has been done with them: “What we are demanding of Cerrejón is our children’s health. We are fighting for our rights to live in a healthy territory, in a reserve without pollution, just as it was before Cerrejón came in. Here, we are exposed to mining pollution 24 hours a day. I have children, and if I have to fight against the whole world for them, I will do it. I will go wherever I have to, for my family and to honour the memory of all of the children that have died or fallen sick because of the pollution. How is it possible that we, as Cerrejón’s neighbours, don’t have access to healthcare? We don’t have potable water. We don’t have decent housing. We live in absolute poverty.” The present-day imperative is to help these people fight against the predatory and remorselessly exploitative practices of Cerrejon mining companies.

The Ravages of Lithium Extraction in Chile

In Chile, the Covid-19 pandemic is raging with an unprecedented speed. There are more than 300,000 confirmed cases with one of the highest per capita infection rates of 13,000 cases for every 1 million people. The economy is severely experiencing the repercussions of Coronavirus-caused restrictions and the historically high national unemployment rate of 11.2% is an indicator of such damage. Chileans have took to the street to protest against the malfunctioning right-wing government of the billionaire president Sebastian Pinera and the police force has responded aggressively by shooting dead a young agitator.

Amid this Coronavirus chaos, the Chilean lithium sector is poised to economically expand itself due to an anticipated increase in demand. Albemarle, a North Carolina-based corporation and one of the two companies extracting lithium from the Chilean salt plain Salar de Atacama with Sociedad Química y Minera (SQM) or Chemical and Mining Society, said that “the current slump in prices is belying a looming supply shortfall, especially as expansion projects are delayed by the crisis”. TDK, a Japanese multinational electronics companies and battery giant, predicts that the global market is going to witness a surge in demand for lithium. Shigenao Ishiguro, the CEO of the company, told in an interview that “Digital transformation is a huge opportunity for us and I have no doubt that the coronavirus will push the world to go that direction at a faster pace,”.

In spite of Covid-19 pandemic, the battery market is expected to grow “at a compound annual growth rate of about 7% during 2019-2024. The market in cathode for lithium ion batteries, the most common rechargeable car battery, is expected to jump to $58.8 billion by 2024 from $7 billion in 2018”. According to Bloomberg, the pandemic can prove to be an opportunity for the lithium market “with at least some governments, including those of Germany and France, using virus recovery funds to help accelerate a transition from internal combustion engines to battery-powered alternatives. France will offer about 8 billion euros ($9 billion) to its auto sector to bolster support for electric vehicles; Germany’s stimulus package includes about 5.6 billion euros for the sector and will require gas stations to install charging units.”

A likely intensification of lithium exploitation in Chile does not bode well for the working class and the myriad indigenous communities such as the Atacameños, Licanantay, Colla, Aymara and Quechua living in the Atacama desert. The most recent manifestation of the exploitative practices of lithium mining companies has been the maintenance of “operational continuity” to achieve a minimal impact on output. This basically translates into a policy of profit maximization, brutally indifferent towards the existential conditions of workers. In the lithium mining region of Antofagasta, the Coronavirus positivity rate was a stupendous 46.1%. Along with this sheer infliction of necropolitical violence upon the working class, the indigenous people are also reeling under the pressures of lithium extraction in the form of a water crisis. While singular focus has been placed on the issues of water scarcity in urban areas, it is important to remember that indigenous communities living in Salar de Atacama too are coping with an acute water scarcity, artificially caused by lithium operations. In the aforementioned mining region, 65% of water has been consumed by lithium activities. This is one among the many environmental injuries sustained by the ecosystem of the Atacama desert due to the unhindered workings of lithium imperialism.

Instead of seeing the ongoing suppressive squeezing of the working class and indigenous communities in Chile as a one-off phenomenon, it is necessary that it be contextualized in the global structure of lithium imperialism. Lithium imperialism came to be installed as a fraction of global capital and primary commodity production due to two major developments – planetary mine and green extractivism. Firstly, planetary mine, as said by Martin Arboleda, “designates a convoluted terrain where fences, walls, and militarized borders coexist with sprawling supply chains and complex infrastructures of connectivity.” This denotes the establishment of an extractive economic exoskeleton on a planetary scale through the simultaneous use of violent and militarized techniques of oppression and policing.

Secondly, green extractivism refers to “the subordination of human rights and ecosystems to endless extraction in the name of “solving” climate change.” Lithium serves as an important modality for substituting fossil fuel extractivism with green extractivism and consistently maintaining a relentless system of commodification. Instead of “tackling the systemic bloating of northern economies and the excessive demands this places on the world’s resources.”, green lithium extractivism allows capitalists to stabilize the unequal imperialist architecture of core-peripheral countries. Tesla, for examples, uses the discourse of electronic vehicles to cloak its capitalistic carnage of Latin America with the cosmetic coverings of climate change.

Lithium imperialism indicates the cohesive amalgamation of planetary mining with a climate change-covered discourse of extractivism. The fusion of these two distinct strategies initiates a reign of hyper-exploitation, extraction, violence and dispossession in the name of climate change. But this oppressive underside of lithium business is sordidly shadowed by the propagandist puffery of an energy transition which actually feeds upon the body of oppressed workers of Global South. Lithium imperialism, therefore, involves the perpetuation of core-periphery relations under the discursive regime of climate change.

Chile is a victim of contemporary lithium imperialism due to the vast lithium reserves which it has. The country has 48% of the total lithium reserves in the world which amounts to 7.5 million tonnes of lithium, of which 6 million tonnes is found in Salar de Atacama. Chile is part of the lithium-rich area christened and commodified by the bourgeoisie as the “Lithium Triangle”. It is formed by northern Chile, northern Argentina and south Bolivia and has 70% of the world’s lithium brine deposits. Apart from the abundance of lithium, Chile is also attractive for lithium neo-conquistadors “because it costs about $2,000 to $3,800 a ton to extract lithium from brine, compared with $4,000 to $6,000 a ton in Australia, where lithium is mined from rock.” Capital cost for exploration and construction is lower in brine extraction than hard rock extraction due to the different locations of brine lakes and hard rock lithium reserves: “A hard rock project in a remote mountain location with limited access to transportation and energy infrastructure is going to require a lot more money in the exploration budget than a salar in flat terrain…with well-established mining roads and a line to the electrical grid.” In terms of quality, Salar de Atacama “has the best quality reserves of lithium in terms of lithium to potassium concentration as well as low magnesium to lithium ratio.”

The low-cost and high-grade lithium brine deposits have spelled doom for the indigenous people living in the Atacama Salt Flats (AFSs). While lithium brine extraction is economically viable for capitalists, it has deleterious effects on water availability and is therefore, injurious to the social metabolism of indigenous communities. In lithium brine extraction, “up to 95 per cent of the extracted brine water is lost to evaporation and not recovered”. Furthermore, to extract a ton of lithium from brine, 500,000 gallons of water is required. The two companies, Albemarle and SQM, operating in Salar de Atacama have been given “licences to extract almost 2,000 litres of brine per second.” Besides brine water, mining companies “need the fresh water to clean machinery and pipes, and also to produce an auxiliary product from the brine – potash – which is used as a fertiliser.” The use of fresh water by mining companies is indicated by the fact that between 2000 and 2015, the amount of water that was extracted from Atacama was 21% greater than the flow of water to that area.

According to a report produced by the Observatory of Mining Conflicts of Latin America (translated from Spanish), “The greatest socio-environmental impact of lithium mining lies in the indiscriminate expenditure of water for the evaporation of brines and the production of the necessary tasks. Considering that the Atacama salt flat is located in one of the most arid regions in the world, the Atacama desert, the large-scale extraction of water and the basic processing of lithium brines generates severe damage to the fragile ecosystems that depend on those sources.” In the same report, it is written that “the communities originating from the high Andean salt flats suffer serious environmental damage due to the indiscriminate and poorly controlled extraction from the hydro-saline deposits of the salt flats, thus reinforcing their historic place of marginalization, exploitation and subordination.”

This indicates that water scarcity is not a localized phenomenon, restricted to a mere depletion in water levels. Rather, water scarcity contributes to a generalized impoverishment of indigenous people and drastically degrades their everyday living. Degeneration of existential conditions happens, inter alia, through the degradation of soil and vegetation covers. In the Atacama region, indigenous collectivities grow quinoa and look after llamas. For the growth of quinoa plants, an evenly moist soil is required and for herding llamas, it is necessary that there be an adequate vegetation cover on which they can feed. But lithium operations have undermined both these prerequisites and School of Sustainability at Arizona State University reports that “An expansion of lithium brine mining area of one square kilometre was found to correspond to a significant decrease in the average level of vegetation and in soil moisture.”

Through the deliberate disorganization of traditional occupational configurations, lithium companies are able to culturally colonize and proletarianize the spiritual and agro-pastoral practices of communal indigeneity. In the international value chains of lithium, the utter subjugation of indigenous people to the deformed logics of e-mobility is cruelly concealed and as said by the Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salares (translated from Spanish), “The incessant production of disposable electronic devices and the growing market for electric cars for the energy transition of countries in the global north…is becoming today the main threat to the subsistence of any form of life in the basins that host these [lithium] mining deposits”.

Chilean indigenous people have not acquiesced to the economically destructive and culturally catastrophic operations of mining corporations and have reacted strongly to lithium imperialism. In 2019, indigenous people protested against the water-intensive mechanisms of lithium brine extraction and the state, in response, paradoxically charged some communities for “water robbery”. The protests were initially triggered by the underhand dealings of SQM in which “the Chilean economic development agency CORFO signed a contract with SQM that enabled the company to triple its lithium extraction over the coming years and extended its mining access to the Atacama until 2030.” The tripling of lithium extraction till 2030 raised SQM’s lithium extraction quota to 350,000 tons. It is not entirely coincidental that a month after the agreement, Eduardo Bitran, head of CORFO, met with Tesla to propose “a project to Tesla in which SQM would provide brine, the raw material from which lithium is produced, to the carmaker for refining into battery component lithium hydroxide in Chile.”

It was in opposition to this intricate complex of lithium imperialism that indigenous people protested. These protests smoothly synchronized with the larger anti-neoliberal protests occurring in Chile and bolstered the indigenous-working class alliance. But this working class-indigenous movement was soon suppressed by the Chilean state which, in order to stabilize neoliberalism and lithium imperialism, cracked down on protests through rapid detentions, declaration of a state of emergency and the deployment of more than 9,000 soldiers. Because of the protection provided by the state, Ricardo Ramos, the CEO of SQM, was able to say that the protests won’t “be a strong issue in our business goals in the medium and long term.” He further added that “We are going to deliver our products to our customers according to our previous forecast despite the situation in Chile,”. From Ramos’s statement, we discern that there exists a structural arrangement for the cementing of lithium imperialism: companies like SQM economically exploit and culturally hegemonize lithium-rich areas; indigenous people combatively confront the predatory mechanisms of these companies; the Chilean state ultimately intervenes in order to regularize mining operations through the violent deactivation of protests.

While it may seem that the 2019 protest against lithium extraction was a spontaneous eruption of anger, it is necessary that we briefly examine the historical background against which it took place. Apart from signing a shady deal without any consultation, SQM “has been investigated for several cases of tax evasion, money laundering and illegal campaign-funding. In a major public scandal in 2014, politicians from across the spectrum were found to have received major sums of money to look after the company’s interests.” SQM also has a dubious distinction of causing major conflicts and in 2007, for example, there was a skirmish between the company and the Toconao community. Increased extraction of water from unauthorized wells and the contamination of water sources by sewage discharge were the contributory causes behind the SQM-Toconao conflict. Albemarle too has been progressing in its march towards class struggle-free lithium imperialism and in 2017 CORFO amended the corporation’s agreement through which Albemarle got “sufficient lithium to produce over 80,000 MT annually of technical and battery grade lithium salts over the next 27 years at its expanding battery grade manufacturing facilities in La Negra, Antofagasta.”

The rapid ramping up of lithium production by two companies in Chile has successfully benefitted major electronic companies such as Samsung, Apple and Panasonic. In the automobile sector, Toyota, General Motors, Tesla, Volkswagen and BMW are some of the companies reaping economic advantages of the lithium sources of Chile. Figure 1 and 2 depict the multiplex and labyrinthine circuit of lithium in the international market. To satiate the vampire-like thirst of different companies for lithium, there has been a global increase in production and the role of Chile in catering to the lithium hunger of “white gold rush” is indicated by the contemporaneous expansion of Chilean lithium output with world lithium output: “The value of Chile’s lithium carbonate production rose to US$200 million by 2007, to US$500 million by 2012 and to more than US$800 million by 2017. It exceeded US$1 billion in 2018. There was a parallel surge in the value of world first-stage lithium output— reaching US$484 million in 2007, US$998 million by 2013 and US$2865 million in 2017.”

Figure 1, Source: Washington Post, “Indigenous people are left poor as tech world takes lithium from under their feet

Figure 2, Source: Danwatch, “There’s probably Chilean lithium behind the screen you’re reading this on

With the demand for lithium expected to grow in the global market, indigenous people and the working class would start encountering greater difficulties in sustaining themselves as indigenous ecosystems are efficiently eradicated and labor productivity is ruthlessly increased. During the Fastmarkets’ 11th Lithium Supply and Markets Conference in Santiago, “Producers Albemarle, SQM and Tianqi [which has a 23.77% stake in SQM]… agreed that flexibility in production remains vital for addressing diverse industrial and technological challenges.” This was a colloquial way of saying that workers need to be ready to be exploited, discarded and denigrated as mere commodities. For the indigenous people in Chile, life would be wrung economically dry as energy transition occurs in the Global North and magnificent Tesla vehicles silently operate on their blood-stained lithium batteries.

We need to remember that this dystopia of EVs parasitically procuring lithium from the open veins of Chile is avoidable and as said by Thea Riofrancos, “A world buzzing with hundreds of millions of Teslas (or worse, e-Escalades), made with materials rapaciously extracted without the consent of local communities, manufactured under a repressive labor regime in polluting factories — in other words, a world not unlike our own, but powered by wind and sun — is not an inevitability.” To move away from such lithium imperialism, we need to listen to the smothered voices of the Global South. An economic-ecological model based upon the anti-imperialist foundations of the Global South is radically different from capitalist models of extraction. Instead of conceptualizing a “development alternative”, the oppressed masses of the Global South imagine an “alternative to development”. In the interstices of this “alternative to development”, one can locate the seeds of resistance to lithium imperialism.