Category Archives: Africa

The Movement And The 2020 Elections

The political system in the United States is a plutocracy, one that works for the benefit of the wealthy, not the people. Although we face growing crises on multiple fronts – economic insecurity, a violent and racist state, environmental devastation, never-ending wars and more – neither of the Wall Street-funded political parties will take action to respond. Instead, they are helping the rich get richer.

The wealth divide has gotten so severe that three people have more wealth than the bottom 50% of people in the country. Without the support of the rich, it is nearly impossible to compete in elections. In 2016, more than $6.5 billion was spent on the federal elections, a record that will surely be broken in 2020. More than half that money came from less than 400 people, from fewer than 150 families.

People are aware of this corruption and are leaving the two Wall Street parties. According to the census, 21.4% of people do not register to vote, and in 2018, less than a majority of registered voters voted. According to Pew Research, independents (40% of voters) outnumber Democrats (30%) and Republicans (24%). The largest category of registered voters is non-voters. Yet, the media primarily covers those who run within the two parties, or billionaire independent candidates who do not represent the views of most people.

This raises a question for social movements: What can be done to advance our agenda over the next two years when attention will be devoted mostly to two parties and the presidential race?

Progressives Failed to Make the Democratic Party a Left-Progressive Party

People in the United States are trapped in an electoral system of two parties. Some progressives have tried — once again — to remake the Democratic Party into a people’s party.

We interviewed Nick Brana, a former top political organizer for the Sanders presidential campaign, on the Popular Resistance podcast, which will be aired Monday, about his analysis of the Democratic Party. Brana describes the efforts of progressives to push the party to the left over the past three years and how they were stopped at every turn. They tried to:

  • Change the Democratic Party Platform: The platform is nonbinding and meaningless but even so, the Party scrapped the platform passed by the delegates the following year and replaced it with a more conservative one called the “Better Deal.”
  • Replace the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair. They discovered the chair is picked by the DNC, which is made up of corporate lobbyists, consultants, and superdelegates, who picked Hillary Clinton’s candidate Tom Perez, over Rep. Keith Ellison, former co-chair of the Progressive Caucus.
  • Replace the DNC membership with grassroots activists. Instead, at the DNC’s  2017 fall meeting, the Party purged progressives from the DNC, making it more corporate and elitist.
  • Fix the Presidential primary process after it was disclosed that the DNC weighted the scale in favor of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. The Democrats rigged the Rules Commission to accomplish the opposite; i.e., kept closed primaries to shut out progressive independent voters, kept joint fundraising agreements between the DNC and presidential campaigns, slashed the number of states that hold caucuses, which favor progressive candidates, and refused to eliminate superdelegates, moving them to the second ballot at the convention but reserving the right to force a second ballot if they choose.

Further cementing their power, Democrats added a “loyalty oath” which allows the DNC chair to unilaterally deny candidates access to the ballot if he deems the candidate has been insufficiently “faithful” to the Party during their life. And the DNC did nothing to remove corporate and billionaire money from the primary or the Party, ensuring Wall Street can continue purchasing its politicians.

The results of the 2018 election show the Blue Wave was really a Corporate Wave. Brana describes how only two progressives out of 435 members of Congress unseated House Democrats in all of 2018: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. When Pelosi was challenged as leader of the House Democrats, she was challenged from a right-wing Blue Dog Democrat, not a progressive Democrat, with many “progressives” including AOC and Rep. Jayapal speaking up for Pelosi’s progressive credentials.

In contrast to the failure of progressives, the militarists had a banner 2018 election. The 11 former intelligence officials and veterans were the largest groups of victorious Democratic challengers in Republican districts. Throughout the 2018 election cycle, Democratic Party leaders worked against progressive candidates, for instance pushing them to oppose Medicare for all.

This is an old story that each generation learns for itself: the Democratic Party cannot be remade into a people’s party. It has been a big business party from its founding as a slaveholders party in the early 1800s, when slaves were the most valuable “property” in the country, to its Wall Street funding today. Lance Selfa, in “The Democrats: A Critical History,” shows how the Democratic Party has consistently betrayed the needs of ordinary people while pursuing an agenda favorable to Wall Street and US imperialism. He shows how political movements from the union and workers movements to the civil rights movement to the antiwar movement, among others, have been betrayed and undermined by the Democratic Party.

Social Movements Must Be Independent of the Corporate Parties

The lesson is mass movements need to build their own party. The movement should not be distracted by the media and bi-partisan politicos who urge us to vote against what is necessary for the people and planet. At this time of crisis, we cannot settle for false non-solutions.

Howie Hawkins, one of the founders of the Green Party and the first candidate to campaign on a Green New Deal, describes, in From The Bottom Up: The Case For An Independent Left Party, how Trumpism is weakening as its rhetoric of economic populism has turned into extreme reactionary Republicanism for the millionaires and billionaires. He explains that Democrats are not the answer either, as “they won’t replace austerity capitalism and militaristic imperialism to which the Democratic Party is committed.”

The result, writes Hawkins, is we must commit ourselves “to build an independent, membership-based working-class party.” Even the New Deal-type reforms of Bernie Sanders “do not end the oppression, alienation, and disempowerment of working people” and do not stop “capitalism’s competitive drive for mindless growth that is devouring the environment and roasting the planet.”

Hawkins urges an ecosocialist party that creates economic democracy; i.e., social ownership of the means of production for democratic planning and allocation of economic surpluses as well as confronting the climate crisis. He explains socialism is a “movement of the working class acting for itself, independently, for its own freedom.”

He urges membership-based parties building from the local level that are independent of the two corporate-funded parties.  Local branches would educate people on issues to support a mass movement for transformational change. Hawkins is a long-time anti-racism activist. He became politically active as a teenager when he saw the mistreatment of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, who elected sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer as their co-chair. He believes a left party must confront racial and ethnic tensions that have divided the working class throughout its history.

Hawkins points out the reasons why the time is ripe for this. Two-thirds of people are from the working class compared to one-third in 1900. The middle class (e.g. teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, technicians) holds progressive positions on policy issues creating super-majority support for critical issues on our agenda. The working and middle classes are better educated than ever. Over the last forty years, their living standards have declined, especially the younger cohort that is starting life in debt like no other generation. Finally, the environmental crisis is upon us and can no longer be ignored creating a decisive need for radical remaking of the economy.

Critical Issues To Educate And Mobilize Around

Popular Resistance identified a 16 point People’s Agenda for economic, racial and environmental justice as well as peace.  Three issues on which we should focus our organizing over the next few years include:

National Improved Medicare For All: The transformation of healthcare in the US from an insurance-based market system to a national public health system is an urgent need with over 100,000 deaths annually that would not occur if we had a system like the UK or France, two-thirds of bankruptcies (more than 500,000 per year) are due to medical illness even though most of those who were bankrupted had insurance, 29 million people do not have health insurance and 87 million people are underinsured.

While many Democrats are supporting expanded and improved Medicare for all, including presidential candidates, the movement needs to push them to truly mean it and not to support fake solutions that use our language; e.g., Medicare for some (public options, Medicare buy-ins and reducing the age of Medicare). Winning Medicare for all will not only improve the health of everyone, it will be a great economic equalizer for the poor, elderly and communities of color. This is an issue we can win if we continue to educate and organize around it.

Join our Health Over Profit for Everyone campaign.

Enacting a Green New Deal. The Green New deal has been advocated for since 2006, first by Global Greens, then by Green Party candidates at the state level and then by Jill Stein in her two presidential runs. The issue is now part of the political agenda thanks to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She and Senator Ed Markey led the introduction of a framework for a Green New Deal, which is supported by more than 50 Democrats including many presidential candidates.

Their resolution is a framework that the movement needs to educate and organize to make into real legislation to urgently confront the climate crisis, which has been mishandled by successive US presidents. The movement must unite for a real Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal has the potential to not only confront the climate crisis by shifting to a carbon-free/nuclear-free energy economy but to also shift to a new economy that is fairer and provides economic security. Remaking energy so it serves the people, including socializing energy systems; e.g., public utilities, could also provide living wage jobs and strengthen worker’s rights. It will require the remaking of housing, which could include social housing for millions of people, a shift from agribusiness to regenerative agriculture and remaking finance to include public banks to pay for a Green New Deal. The Democratic leadership is already seeking to kill the Green New Deal, so the movement has its work cut out for it.

Stopping Wars and Ending US Empire: US empire is in decline but is still causing great destruction and chaos around the world. US militarism is expensive. The empire economy does not serve people, causing destabilization, death and mass migration abroad as well as austerity measures at home. Over the next decade, the movement has an opportunity to define how we end empire in the least destructive way possible.

As US dominance wanes, the US is escalating conflicts with other great powers. The US needs to end 15 years of failed wars in the Middle East and 18 years in Afghanistan. In Latin America, US continues to be regime change against governments that seek to represent the interests of their people especially in Venezuela where the threat of militarism is escalating, but also in Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Cuba. The migrant issue being used by Trump to build a wall along the US-Mexican border is created by US policies in Central America. And, the US needs to stop the militarization of Africa and its neocolonial occupation by Africom.

Take action: Participate in the Feb. 23, 2019, international day of action against the US intervention in Venezuela and the “Hands-Off” national protest in Washington, DC on March 16, 2019.

There will also be actions around April 4, when NATO holds its 70th-anniversary meeting in Washington, DC, on the same day as the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death and his Beyond Vietnam speech.

Join the Spring Actions against NATO in Washington, DC.

While the US lives in a mirage democracy with manipulated elections, there is a lot of work we can do to build a mass movement that changes the direction of the country. This includes building independent political parties to represent that movement in elections.

Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide

American politicians from the two main parties have finally found something to agree upon: more intervention in Venezuela.

“Now, despite (President Nicolas) Maduro, there is hope (in Venezuela)”, wrote Democratic Senator, Dick Durbin, in USA Today. “These events (meaning the current political instability in the country) are a welcome development of Latin American nations defending democracy.”

“He’s picked a battle he can’t win,” Republican Senator, Marco Rubio, said, referring to Maduro in an interview, quoted in the New York Times. “It’s just a matter of time. The only thing we don’t know is how long it will take – and whether it will be peaceful or bloody.”

This unprecedented unity between Democrats and Republicans reflects an American legacy that precedes the current Donald Trump Administration by nearly two centuries. In fact, it goes much further and deeper than the US hegemonic approach to South America, to encompass the entire Western political hemisphere, with the exception of Italy, Norway and Greece.

The West’s love-affair with intervention has little to do with restoring democracy, either in Venezuela, or anywhere else. ‘Democracy’ has been used throughout the 20th century as a tool that provided legal and moral rationalization for US and Western meddling. It matters little to Western leaders that Maduro was elected in presidential elections deemed ‘transparent‘ by international observers in May 2018.

Notwithstanding Maduro’s own shortcomings in uniting his people in the face of a most pressing economic crisis, what gives Trump, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, France’s Emmanuel Macron the right to cast a deciding vote on who rules over Venezuela?

Sadly, Venezuela is neither the precedent, nor the exception. South America – as are the Middle East and Africa – has for long been perceived as if a Western protectorate going back many years. They are all rich with oil and other essential raw materials, but are also strategically significant in terms of global hegemony. Colonialism might have ended in its traditional form (with Palestine being the main exception) but it lives on in other ways.

While the US and its Western allies are strongly challenged by rising economic and military powers in Asia, the fate of South America, the Middle East and Africa is yet to be decided. The US, in particular, has always viewed South America as its own turf, and has either directly or indirectly contributed to coups, political and economic instability throughout the region.

US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has garnered a terrible reputation due to his role in the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent destabilization of the Middle East. Although discredited for his thoughtless and often militant approach to politics, he was resurrected by the Trump administration and is now travelling the world sowing the seeds of political and military discord.

While speaking about Washington’s need to “protect democracy” in Venezuela, Bolton admitted that a coup in Venezuela is an opportunity to exploit the country’s vast oil and natural resources.

Bolton explained the economic logic of US intervention in an interview with Fox News, soon after Venezuelan opposition leader and a main ally of the US, Juan Guaidó, declared himself an ‘interim president’ on January 23.

A regime change in Venezuela “will make a big difference to the United States economically, if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela,” Bolton said.

But how is that to be achieved?

During a press conference at the White House a few days after the coup, Bolton “appeared to disclose confidential notes written on a yellow pad that included a plan to send US troops to Colombia,” in preparation for a military intervention in Venezuela.

Hasn’t Iraq quelled Bolton’s appetite for intervention, considering that the entire Middle East region now subsists in political uncertainty and unrelenting wars? And if Bolton is yet to get a hint that the world is rapidly changing, and that it behooves his country to reconsider its destructive interventionist foreign policy, why are Democrats joining in, along with the ‘liberal’ and ‘socialist’ European powers?

“Old habits die hard,” as the saying goes, and it seems that Western politicians refuse to abandon the old interventionist maxim and colonialist mentality through which they ruled the world for far too long.

This view is not meant to undermine the horrific economic conditions in Venezuela or overlook the endemic corruption in that country, which need to be understood and, if needed, criticized. But while the Venezuelan people have every right to protest their government, demanding greater accountability and economic solutions to the crushing poverty facing the country, no one has the right to meddle in the affairs of Venezuela or any other sovereign country, anywhere.

Moreover, it must be clear that neither the US nor its allies are interested in helping Venezuela to overcome its economic woes. In fact, they seem to be doing everything in their power to exacerbate the problem.

Hyperinflation and the crumbling of Venezuela’s oil industries led to a dramatic economic downturn in recent years, with about ten percent of the population fleeing the country. Poor policy choices also led to the significant weakening of local production and increasing devaluation of the country’s currency.

Venezuela has been a target on the American radar for many years. The deterioration of its economy, however, was the perfect opportunity for the US to trigger its Venezuelan allies into action, this leading to the current coup and political stalemate.

But those counting on the US to stabilize Venezuela in the long run are ignorant of history. The US government has hardly ever been a source of stability in South America, certainly not since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Since then, the US has done more than mere meddling, but engaged in outright political and military interventions.

The situation in Venezuela is dire, with children reportedly dying as a result of the lack of medicine and food. The country is also gearing up for a US military intervention and possible civil war.

Considering that all of these tragic predictions have already been witnessed in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, South American leaders, and the few sensible voices around the world must move to block any further US meddling, and allow the people of Venezuela, through democracy, to determine their own future.

Now Chad, then Mali: Why African Countries Are Normalizing with Israel

Forget the hype. Israel’s ‘security technology’ has nothing to do with why some African countries are eager to normalize relations with Israel.

What is it that Israel is able to offer in the technology sector to Chad, Mali and others that the United States, the European Union, China, Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa and others cannot?

The answer is ‘nil’, and the moment we accept such a truth is the moment we start to truly understand why Chad, a Muslim-majority country, has just renewed its diplomatic ties with Israel. And, by extension, the same logic applies to Mali, another Muslim-majority country that is ready to normalize with Israel.

Chadian President, Idriss Deby, was in Israel last November, a trip that was touted as another Benjamin Netanyahu-engineered breakthrough by the Israeli government and its allied media.

In return, Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu, paid Deby a visit to N’djamena where they agreed to resume diplomatic ties. In their joint press conference, Deby spoke of ‘deals’ signed between Chad and Israel, but failed to provide more details.

Israel may try to present itself as the savior of Africa, but no matter how comparatively strong the Israeli economy is, Tel Aviv will hardly have the keys to solving the woes of Chad, Mali or any other country on the African continent.

Israeli media is actively contributing to the fanfare that has accompanied Netanyahu’s ‘scramble for Africa’, and is now turning its focus to preparations under way for another ‘historic visit”, that of Malian President, Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, to Israel in the “coming weeks”.

Netanyahu is keen to schedule Maiga’s trip just before the April 9 date, when Israelis go to the polls to vote in the country’s early general elections.

Israel’s motives to normalize with Africa are inspired by the same reasoning behind Netanyahu’s international outreach to South America and other regions in the global South.

Despite the Trump-Netanyahu love affair at the moment, Israel has no faith in the future of the US in the Middle East region. The current Donald Trump administration, as the previous Barack Obama administration, has made clear and calculated moves to slowly deploy out of the region and ‘pivot’ elsewhere.

This has alerted Netanyahu to the fact that Israel would have to diversify its alliances as an American veto at the United Nations Security Council is no longer a guarantor to Israel’s regional dominance.

For years, Netanyahu has pursued an alternative course, which has become the only path for Israel to escape its international isolation. Unfortunately for Palestinians, Israel’s new strategy, of seeking separate alliances with UN General Assembly members seems to be paying dividends. Israel now hopes that other countries that have historically stood on the side of Palestinians – voting for Palestinian rights as a bloc at the UN – will follow the Chad and Mali examples.

The struggle between Israel and Arab countries in Africa, according to Dan Avni – a top Israeli Foreign Ministry official during the 1950s and ‘60s – is “a fight of life and death for us.” That statement was made during a time that the US had not fully and ardently committed to the Israeli colonial project, and Israel was in a desperate need to break away from its isolation.

Following the expansion of the Israeli colonial project in Palestine and other Arab countries after the 1967 war, the US unconditional political, economic and military support for Israel has addressed many of Israel’s perceived vulnerabilities, empowering it to become the uncontested bully of the whole region. At the time, neither Africa mattered, nor did the rest of the international community.

But now, a new Great Game is changing the rules once more. Not only is the US losing its grip in the Middle East and Africa – thanks to the rise of Russian and Chinese influences, respectively – Washington is also busy elsewhere, desperate to sustain its dwindling global hegemony for a bit longer.

Although ties between Washington and Tel Aviv are still strong, Israeli leaders are aware of a vastly changing political landscape. According to Israeli calculation, the ‘fight of life and death’ is drawing near, once again.

The answer? Enticing poor countries, in Africa and elsewhere, with political support and economic promises so that they would deny Palestinians a vote at the UN.

It is no surprise that the governments of Chad and Mali are struggling, not only economically, but also in terms of political legitimacy as well. Torn in the global struggle for dominance between the US and China, they feel pressed to make significant choices that could make the difference between their survival or demise in future upheavals.

For these countries, an alliance with Israel is a sure ticket to the Washington political club. Such membership could prove significant in terms of economic aid, political validation and, more importantly, an immunity against pesky military coups.

Considering this, those who are stuck discussing the Israeli ‘charm offensive’ in Africa based on the claim of Israel’s technological advancement and hyped water technology are missing the forest for the trees.

It is important to note that it is not the road to Tel Aviv that N’Djamena and Bamako are seeking, but rather the road to Washington itself. In Africa, as in other parts of the global South, it is often the US, not the UN that bestows and denies political legitimacy. For African leaders who enjoy no democratic credence, a handshake with Netanyahu could be equivalent to a political life insurance.

So, for now, Israel will continue to walk this fine line, usurping American resources and political support as always, while learning how to walk on its own, by developing a foreign policy that it hopes will spare it further isolation in the future.

It is yet to dawn on Israeli leaders that, perhaps, a shortcut to breaking its isolation can be achieved through respecting international law, the rights of the Palestinian people and the territorial sovereignty of its neighbors.

Diplomatic ties with Chad and Mali may garner Netanyahu a few more votes next April, but they will also contribute to the Israeli illusion that it can be an international darling and an Apartheid regime, simultaneously.

Capitalist Agriculture: Putting Soil on a Diet of Snake Oil and Doughnuts

In their rush to readily promote neoliberal dogma and corporate-inspired PR, many government officials, scientists and journalists take as given that profit-driven transnational corporations have a legitimate claim to be custodians of natural assets. The premise is that under capitalism water, food, soil and agriculture should be handed over to powerful and wholly corrupt transnational corporations to milk for profit, under the pretence these entities are somehow serving the needs of humanity.

These natural assets (‘the commons’) belong to everyone and any stewardship should be carried out in the common interest by local people assisted by public institutions and governments acting on their behalf, not by private transnational corporations driven by self-interest and the maximization of profit by any means possible.

Concerns about what is in the public interest or what is best for the environment lies beyond the scope of hard-headed commercial interests and should ideally be the remit of elected governments and civil organisations. However, the best-case scenario for private corporations is to have supine, co-opted agencies or governments. And if current litigation cases in the US and the ‘Monsanto Papers’ court documents tell us anything, this is exactly what they set out to create.

Of course, we have known how corporations like Monsanto (and Bayer) have operated for many years, whether it is by bribery, smear campaigns, faking data, co-opting agencies and key figures, subverting science or any of the other actions or human rights abuses that the Monsanto Tribunal shed light on.

Behind the public relations spin of helping to feed the world is the roll-out of an unsustainable model of agriculture based on highly profitable (GM) corporate seeds and massive money-spinning health- and environment-damaging proprietary chemical inputs that we now know lacked proper regulatory scrutiny and should never have been commercialised in the first place. In effect, transnational agribusiness companies have sought to marginalise alternative approaches to farming and create dependency on their products.

Localisation and traditional methods of food production have given way to globalised supply chains dominated by transnational companies policies and actions which have resulted in the colonisation of land in the Global South as well as the destruction of habitat and livelihoods, ecocide, mass displacement of peoples and the imposition of corporate-controlled, chemical-intensive (monocrop) agriculture that weds farmers and regions to a wholly exploitative system of globalised capitalism. Whether it involves the undermining or destruction of what were once largely self-sufficient agrarian economies in Africa or the devastating impacts of soy cultivation in Argentina or palm oil production in Indonesia, transnational agribusiness and capitalism cannot be greenwashed.

Soil on a doughnut diet

One of the greatest natural assets that humankind has is soil. It can take 500 years to generate an inch of soil yet just a few generations to destroy. When you drench soil with proprietary synthetic chemicals, introduce company-patented genetically tampered crops or continuously monocrop as part of a corporate-controlled industrial farming system, you kill essential microbes, upset soil balance and end up feeding soil a limited “doughnut diet” of unhealthy inputs (and you also undermine soil’s unique capacity for carbon storage and its potential role in combatting climate change).

Armed with their synthetic biocides, this is what the transnational agritech companies do. In their arrogance (and ignorance), these companies claim to know what they are doing and attempt to get the public and various agencies to bow before the altar of corporate ‘science’ and its scientific priesthood.

But in reality, they have no real idea about the long-term impacts their actions have had on soil and its complex networks of microbes and microbiological processes. Soil microbiologists are themselves still trying to comprehend it all.

That much is clear in this article, where Brian Barth discusses a report by the American Society of Microbiologists (ASM). Acknowledging that farmers will need to produce 70 to 100 per cent more food to feed a projected nine billion humans by 2050, the introduction to the report states:

Producing more food with fewer resources may seem too good to be true, but the world’s farmers have trillions of potential partners that can help achieve that ambitious goal. Those partners are microbes.

Linda Kinkel of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Pathology is reported by Barth as saying:

We understand only a fraction of what microbes do to aid in plant growth.

Microbes can help plants better tolerate extreme temperature fluctuations, saline soils and other challenges associated with climate change. For instance, Barth reports that microbiologists have learned to propagate a fungus that colonizes cassava plants and increases yields by up to 20 per cent. Its tiny tentacles extend far beyond the roots of the cassava to unlock phosphorus, nitrogen and sulphur in the soil and siphon it back to their host.

According to the article, a group of microbiologists have challenged themselves to bring about a 20 per cent increase in global food production and a 20 per cent decrease in fertilizer and pesticide use over the next 20 years – without all the snake oil-vending agribusiness interests in the middle.

Feeding the world? 

These microbiologists are correct. What is required is a shift away from what is increasingly regarded as discredited Green Revolution ideology. The chemical-intensive green revolution has helped the drive towards greater monocropping and has resulted in less diverse diets and less nutritious foods. Its long-term impact has led to soil degradation and mineral imbalances, which in turn have adversely affected human health.1

Adding weight to this argument, the authors of this paper from the International Journal of Environmental and Rural Development state (references in article):

Cropping systems promoted by the green revolution have increased the food production but also resulted in reduced food-crop diversity and decreased availability of micronutrients. Micronutrient malnutrition is causing increased rates of chronic diseases (cancer, heart diseases, stroke, diabetes and osteoporosis) in many developing nations; more than 3 billion people are directly affected by the micronutrient deficiencies. Unbalanced use of mineral fertilizers and a decrease in the use of organic manure are the main causes of the nutrient deficiency in the regions where the cropping intensity is high.

(Note: we should adopt a cautious approach when attributing increases in food production to the green revolution technology/practices).

The authors imply that the link between micronutrient deficiency in soil and human nutrition is increasingly regarded as important:

Moreover, agricultural intensification requires an increased nutrient flow towards and greater uptake of nutrients by crops. Until now, micronutrient deficiency has mostly been addressed as a soil and, to a smaller extent, plant problem. Currently, it is being addressed as a human nutrition problem as well. Increasingly, soils and food systems are affected by micronutrients disorders, leading to reduced crop production and malnutrition and diseases in humans and plants. Conventionally, agriculture is taken as a food-production discipline and was considered a source of human nutrition; hence, in recent years many efforts have been made to improve the quality of food for the growing world population, particularly in the developing nations.

Referring to India, Stuart Newton’s states:

The answers to Indian agricultural productivity is not that of embracing the international, monopolistic, corporate-conglomerate promotion of chemically-dependent GM crops… India has to restore and nurture her depleted, abused soils and not harm them any further, with dubious chemical overload, which are endangering human and animal health. (p. 24).

Newton provides insight into the importance of soils and their mineral compositions and links their depletion to the green revolution. In turn, these depleted soils cannot help but lead to mass malnourishment. This is quite revealing given that proponents of the green revolution claim it helped reduced malnutrition.

And Newton has a valid point. India is losing 5,334 million tonnes of soil every year due to soil erosion, much of which is attributed to the indiscreet and excessive use of fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research reports that soil is become deficient in nutrients and fertility.

The US has possibly 60 years of farming left due to soil degradation. The UK has possibly 100 harvests left in its soils.

We can carry on down the route of chemical-intensive (and soil-suffocating, nutritionally inferior GM crops), poisonous agriculture, where our health, soil and the wider environment from Punjab to the Gulf of Mexico continue to be sacrificed on the altar of corporate profit. Or we can shift to organic farming and agroecology and investment in indigenous models of agriculture as advocated by various high-level agencies and reports.

The increasingly globalised industrial food regime that transnational agribusiness promotes is not feeding the world and is also responsible for some of the planet’s most pressing political, social and environmental crises – not least hunger and poverty. This system, the capitalism driving it and the corporations that fuel and profit from it are illegitimate and destructive.

These companies quite naturally roll-out their endless spin that we can’t afford to live without them. But we can no longer afford to live with them. As the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver says:

The power of the corporations over governments and over the scientific community is extremely important. If you want to deal with pesticides, you have to deal with the companies.

As we currently see in litigation cases involving Monsanto in the US, part of ‘dealing’ with these corporations (and hopefully eventually their board members and those who masquerade as public servants but who act on their behalf) should involve the law courts.

I would go further than Elver by saying that while dealing with these corporations is a step forward, we must also address the root cause: capitalism and its international relations of production and consumption. And we must also offer solutions – beginning with an agroecology that is underpinned by a strong ecosocialist political vision.

  1. See this report on India by botanist Stuart Newton, p. 9 onward.

Gabon and Coup Mania

It starts with a presumption, makes its way through a discussion, and becomes a set, moulded stereotype: Africa is the continent of tin pot dictatorships, unstable leaderships, and coups.  Latin America, attuned to brigandage and frontier mentalities, is not far behind.  Such instances lend themselves to the inevitable opportunity to exploit the exception.  Gabon, ruled by the same family without interruption since 1967, is being stated as a possible example.

The news so far, if one dares trust it, suggests that a coup was put down in the African state with the loss of two lives.  Seven of the plotters were captured a mere five hours after they seized a radio station, during which Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang broadcast a message claiming that President Ali Bongo’s New Year’s Eve message “reinforced doubts about the president’s ability to continue to carry out of the responsibilities of his office.”  Bongo, for his part, had seemed indisposed, suffering a stroke in October and slurring his words in a speech during a December 31 television appearance.

As with other attempted coups, the plotters portrayed themselves as up-market planners in the Brutus mould.  They were killing Caesar to save Rome.  In this case, the men of the Patriotic Movement of the Defence and Security Forces of Gabon were keen to “restore democracy”.  The attempt was put down with some speed.  “The situation is under control,” came a government statement some hours after security forces regained control of the RTG state broadcasting headquarters.  Guy-Betrand Mapangou, true to the sort of form shown by a regime unmoved, insisted that, “The government is in place.  The institutions are in place.”

The coup fascination may not be healthy but is nonetheless fascinatingly morbid.  Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne from the University of Central Florida and University of Kentucky cannot get enough of the business, and have compiled a register of failure.  These political scientists insist on defining coups as “illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive”.  But having to presumably stake some exceptional view to the field, the authors insist that those who go through with a coup have power for at least seven days.  (Why not six or eight?)

This cottage industry invariably produces much smoke but a conspicuous lack of fire.  In 2016, with the failed coup in Turkey unfolding, James McCarthy, writing for Wales Online, insisted on a guidebook approach, drawing from Thyne and Powell’s research.  They, according to McCarthy, “found there were 457 coup attempts between 1950 and 2010.  Of those, 227 were successful and 230 failed.”  Invariably, the Americas and Africa feature as the prominent zones of coups.

The BBC has felt free to run with a map featuring African states “with the highest number of coups since 1952,” a kind of morbid horror show of instability.  Sudan is a big league player in this regard with 14, followed by other states which seem to be in competition with each other (Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Benin and Nigeria come in with eight; Sierra Leone and Ghana sport ten).

Unmentioned in the show was the number of times conspirators, cabals and groups have been encouraged, courtesy of external powers, to sabotage fledgling democratic regimes and back counter-revolutionary agents.  As important as the coup plotters are the coup backers, often to be found in Washington and European policy planning departments and company boardrooms.  The story of stuttered, mutated revolutions in Africa and Latin America is very much one of externally directed coups as much as failed local experiments.

The issue, as if it matters much, about whether a coup is, or is not happening, is a constant theme.  According to Powell, “Coup leaders almost invariably deny their action was a coup in an effort to appear legitimate.”  This is banally leaden as an observation.  All coups must, by definition, be asserted as acts of dissimulation, and not savage, all extirpating revolutions.  To merely depose a leadership is, by definition, conservative.  In a modern state, decapitation might create some initial chaos but leaves the structure, for the most part, intact.  Coups often have the effect of shoring up the junta, in whatever form it takes.

The field of coup gazing also has a moral edge.  There are coups with supposedly good import, and those that are not.  Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” ending the seemingly interminable rule of António de Oliveira Salazar, is cited as one example.  A coup might engender fertile grounds for a democratic movement, or suffer entropic decline before authoritarian reassertion.  A good coup, speculated the Washington Post, took place in Burkina Faso in 2015, with the end of Blaise Compaoré’s rule.  The same paper does note the rather banal qualifier: that “policymakers and academics should not get too excited about the allegedly positive consequences of coups in Africa.”  African armies, for instance, might propel democratic elections; they might just as well remain in power.

Scholars such as Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way argue that multiparty elections in the aftermath of change can just be a front.  Democratic talk can be so much babble before manipulating strongmen.  “Competitive authoritarian regimes,” argue the authors, can entrench themselves.  All this seems beside the point in Gabon, a distant murmur to the academic discourse and policy ponderings that dazzle a good number of analysts.  The obvious point tends to be same: coups tend to be rooted in evolutionary orthodoxy rather than earth shattering revolution.  They are also often the work of unseen hands behind unstable thrones.  Identify those hands, and you may well have some answers.

The Bolton Speech on Africa: A Case of the Wolf and the Foxes

Malcolm X reminded us that we had to be careful about the difference between the wolf and the fox. The wolf for black people was the hardcore, racist white folks with the hoods and clearly articulated stance in support of white supremacy. The fox, on the other hand, was the liberals who were supposed to be our friends. Their ultimate support for white supremacy was always just as deadly but sugarcoated in diversionary language like “humanitarian intervention” and the “responsibility to protect.” The game, according to Malcolm, was that black folks would recognize danger of the wolf and run from the wolf straight into the jaws of the fox with the consequence being just as fatal because both the fox and the wolf are members of the same canine family.

This captures in many ways not only the nature of the ongoing saga of U.S. politics in general where there is really no substantial difference in the class interests and fundamental priorities of the two capitalist parties, but specific policies like U.S. policy in Africa.

In a speech last week before an audience at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, John Bolton unveiled the Trump administration’s “new Africa Strategy.” In what could only be characterized as another example of the White supremacist racial blind-spot, Bolton revealed an understanding of Africa and the role played by the U.S. and Europe that was a compete departure from the reality of the systematic underdevelopment of that continent by Europe and the U.S.

In Bolton’s world, the predatory powers in Africa were not the European powers that raided the continent for black bodies to create the wealth of Europe and then carved up a weakened and devastated Africa among those same powers in 1884. It wasn’t the U.S. that murdered African leaders, overthrew African states and imposed brutal neo-colonial leaders.  No, the real threat to African states were the “predatory” Chinese and, for whatever reasons, he threw in the Russians, that, according to Bolton “stunt economic growth in Africa and…threaten financial independence of African nations.”

Therefore, in typical colonialist arrogance in which Bolton’s analysis represents objective truth, he states that African states have a choice. Either surrender to Chinese and Russia interests, or align themselves with the U.S. to secure “foreign aid” and avoid subversion from the U.S.!

Of course, there is a different position, a reading of African history from the point of view of the African. From that perspective, it was the predatory practices of European and U.S. imperialist policies that reduced Africa to its present situation as the richest continent on the planet in terms of natural resources, land and people – to a balkanized continent of 54 nations, economically disarticulated, politically fragmented and still suffering the cultural effects of alien colonial cultural imposition.

Whatever the national intentions China or Russia may have in Africa, only the most jaded or confused could conclude that economic relations with these states and in particular with China provides African states a modicum of space to exercise more effective national sovereignty than had ever been afforded them by the European colonial powers that craved up and unmercifully exploited African labor and land.

But that is the point and the intent of U.S. Africa policy over the last seventy-three years since the end of the second imperialist war in 1945.

Bolton and the racist policy-makers in Washington don’t want to see African nations with any space to act independently of the dependence imposed on them by predatory trade regimes, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund debt peonage.

While China provides investment in African infrastructure and production capacities, the U.S. offers Africa militarism and subversion from Libya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Bolton didn’t mention in his statement that U.S. strategy for Africa which centers military recolonization would be a continuation of the U.S. policies of the last few decades and in particular during the Obama administration that saw the expansion of the U.S. military presence by 1,900 %.

It is clear that the Trump “strategy” offers nothing substantially different. The policy continues to be more guns, more bases and more subversion.

The destruction of Libya that resulted in the enhanced military capacities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, the disastrous decision to carve up the Sudan and create yet another colonial entity called South Sudan, military and political support for President Kagame of Rwanda, President Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Museveni of Uganda and expansion of AFRICOM reflects the murderous continuity of U.S. African policy.

When Bolton claims that in order to assist with African economic development it is “developing a new initiative called “Prosper Africa,” which will support U.S. investment across the continent, grow Africa’s middle class, and improve the overall business climate in the region.”

This approach is not in any way a departure from the Bush-Obama “African Growth and Opportunity Act” which made similar claims and focused on a concentration of extractive trade policies to exploit African natural resources and served as basis of continued conflict over those resources in nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo where more than six million Africans have died in resource-based conflicts.

Bolton’s claim that it is Russia and China that “stunt economic growth in Africa, and “threaten financial independence of African nations”, represents another example of either cynicism or the psychopathology of the white supremacist colonialist mind that renders it unable to cognitively apprehend objective reality.

Therefore, Bolton’s speech and Trump’s administration policy was not so much a new strategy but a cruder reaffirmation of a political stance on Africa that has always put U.S. interests first, absent the flowery language and liberal pretentions of Obama’s Cairo speech earlier in his administration. From Obama’s “exceptional nation” to Trump’s “Make American Great Again,” it has always been about putting the interest of U.S. imperialism first.

The people of Africa must not allow the African continent to be drawn into competing blocs during last death thrones of a dying neo-liberal capitalist world system.

We say to Bolton, Trump and the neo-liberal democrats: U.S. out of Africa, Shut down AFRICOM, Africa for Africans at home and abroad!

Our radical imaginations can conceive of a world in which the choice is beyond the wolf and the fox. We are on the side of the majority, the majority of the world that is suffering the structural violence of a global neo-liberal capitalist/imperialist system. But Africans in the U.S. must make a choice. Malcolm said you cannot sit at the table and not have any food in front of you and call yourself a diner. Africans in the U.S. have been sitting at the table of U.S. citizenship and calling themselves “Americans” while our people are murdered, confined to cages in prisons, die giving birth to our children, die disproportionately before the age of five, live in poverty, are disrespected and dehumanized. A choice must be made: do you throw in with this dying system or do you align with the working class and oppressed peoples of the world.

The people of the global South are clear. They can make intelligent distinctions between friends and enemies, between their national interests and the national interests of other nations and where those interests might converge, if only temporarily. But the one thing they are also clear about is that the U.S. and Europe have nothing to offer for the new world that must be built. In fact, when Europe and the U.S. are reduced in power and influence globally, it will be one of the most important events for collective humanity in the last thousand years.

Capitalist Society Under the One Party of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum

The delay of the socialist revolution engenders the indubitable phenomena of barbarism — chronic unemployment, pauperization of the petty bourgeoisie, fascism, finally wars of extermination which do not open up any new road.

— Leon Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism

While the citizens of the rich world are protected from harm, the poor, the vulnerable and the hungry are exposed to the harsh reality of climate change in their everyday lives…. We are drifting into a world of ‘adaptation apartheid.

— South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, United Nations Human Development Report 2007-2008

That puking up barbarism phenomena in this enclave of genocide and perpetual war, resource theft and global toxification come in a coat of many colors. In the simplest terms I see it daily in my job as underpaid and spat upon social worker jiggering with the penury, punishment and putrefying systems of bureaucratic hell and legal rape exemplified in the schizophrenic American version of capitalism.

In no way am I ever NOT entertained by the magical thinking and retrograde beliefs of those I serve – homeless veterans who in some cases decry welfare for the masses while picking up their welfare checks and benefits from the Veterans Administration. On top of that, they feel entitled because they ended up in the economic draft of the US Military Industrial Complex. These are not the ones who saw “battle” overseas, but the ones who were snookered into thinking a tour here or there, in a non-combatant role would get them somewhere in life.

Broken people come to the military, and the military breaks them again, and, the gift that keeps on giving are the systems of oppression and criminalization of living life in Trump’s “MAGA, MAGA über alles, über alles in der Welt.”

Reality is that this thing called America, united snakes one in all, was running on that manifest destruction at the moment those Puritanical misanthropes ended up on the east coast with their fears, dark perversions, warped criminal religiosity and white DNA primed for a taking, eminent domain and killings far and wide.

On the one hand, my clients with mental strains beyond repair and hobbled with a truck-load of PTSD, and another container ship full of physical ailments believe their “service” was honorable, somehow divorced from the huge welfare trough that is the military-private contractor complex, and more so, suspended from the reality that their own kind — fellow soldiers ranging from the likes of a Private Gomer Pyle to Gen Schwarzkopf — screwed them in every which way possible inside the human frame of exploitation and downright pathological assault on every front.

Screwed them with shitty equipment, shittier intel, rampant rotten orders, and a million environmental assaults that have rendered millions of men and women who individually barely served a few years into the walking-wheelchaired-vegetative state wounded.

There have been a million battles and skirmishes that were set up as suicide assaults.

Then on the other hand, some of the clients who are self-declared  deplorables — who believe in Trump as something more than a rotten, lying, wimp of a man with his self-anointed Six Star General’s Bully Epaulets and Bone Spurs Yellow Streak Academy Jumpsuit — are not limited to a bunch of uneducated cretins, but also those who thought time served would be a touchstone in their lives.

Constantly, I have to wrestle with my clients’ reprobate ideas that anything about the government sucks and everything about private capital shines. It’s a reverse ideology of anti-Americanism: against teachers, against librarians, against the postman, against scientists and doctors and others from the so-called Great American Democracy as products of state schools, state governments, municipalities, and the like. They’ll root for these pathetic sports teams, both college and the pros, rendering stupid their concept of where those facilities are and where the billionaire owners get their sports gladiators.

Delusional, really, as my clients shudder with spiritual epiphany at those millionaire preachers like the Billy-Frank Graham Klan and hyper-millionaires running the retail show and all those attendant systems of destruction in the Big Pharma-Big Prison-Big Energy-Big Mining-Big Ag-Big Construction Complex they so often defend as the Defenders of Democracy in Private enterprise.

Here’s a common link to the duality of systems of oppression, that structural violence that leads communities and entire classes and races of people into more and more dungeons of despair and destruction:

One fellow, 62, homeless because the apartment management tossed him out as the maintenance man, with the free apartment in the mix. Out of a job and no longer making the dough to pay rent, he was forced to squat for a while before the iron jaws of the sheriff department came in and served him eviction papers.

Lapsed car insurance, lapsed driver’s license, and, alas, a speeding ticket in a school zone. And, now, 8 years later after eight years on the road and homeless, this little shithole town of King City has him in their vise for $1700. The original ticket was $700 with the add on’s of court fees, administrative costs and other highway robbery checks and balances. So, this fellow is in need of a driver’s license, but these cities have been colonized by those PRIVATIZERS – in this case some multi-millionaire outfit out of Gig Harbor, Washington, which takes on the collections. Imagine, we want to set up a payment plan, even though this fine has passed the statute of limitations. But the City of King City, OR, puts a hold on releasing licenses until every red-blooded Yankee cent is paid off.

We can only imagine what the cut is for this Little Eichmann outfit collecting fines from hundreds of cities, maybe thousands. The interest of a thousand bucks might be waived, but still, the $700 is probably only pennies on the dollar for the city as the Collection Agency (AKA mob in MBA clothing) racks up the largess of the original out of wack fine as profit running their boiler rooms of collection workers.

Punishment, boomerang retribution. Name one place and one job where a personal vehicle can easily be pushed aside as part of the work routine, discounted as a necessity of getting to and from work, or the fact that blue collar work never requires a driver’s license for using company vehicles. Right! A driver’s license is a right, not a privilege, in this bunkered society!

The great American rah-rah, fighting for one’s country, fighting for these evil punks like a Trump, just doesn’t cut it when the ex-soldiers start adding up the contradictions and outright lies of the elite class, which a Trump and his cronies signify and exemplify.

The core of these systems of pain and recurring punishment generates hate, fear, resentment, anger and violence – of the mind, violence of the soul and possible violence exacted on the innocents and not so innocents around them.

These characters I work with mostly never look at the concurrency of pathological serial shooters and these racist, homophobic anti-tolerance military experience, or how these synagogue attackers were subliminally and overtly recruited into the Armed Services with the true blue Yankee Doodle Dandy and Johnny Comes Marching Home Again glee perpetrated again by the neo-fascist army of Republicans and Trump Lagoon Monsters, all of which the Democrats simultaneously hide from and deal with.

Colonized With Hive and Mob Mentalities Simultaneously

I’ve signed permission passes (we force adults to sign and ask for permission to leave a homeless facility!) for overnight stays away from the shelter where I work for people who have brokered this idea of “anomie” into their very existence, a lack of meaningful and structuralized social life in return for Black Friday, the height of meaningless self-gratification at the expense of not only the planet but the faceless and nameless people charged with running this engine of Retailapithecus restlessness. As Émile Durkheim the sociologist stated, we are a modern culture where the individual follows an increasingly “restless movement, a planless self-development, an aim of living which has no criterion of value and in which happiness lies always in the future, and never in the present achievement.”

More and more of the clients I work with have as their end goal individualized happiness, their 40 acres and a mule dream, for me myself and I. They come from a hive of military brainwashing and propaganda, one where leaders are followed and hated at the same time, one where the broken system of war, empire, manifest destiny, nation invasions and nation building (sic) is their ultimate plan of self-gratification – I joined to protect the flag, our way of life and to protect our borders from savages and invaders. Except the borders, as anyone knowing the history of these here United Snakes of America, is all about Norte Americanos encroaching and breaking the borders of others.

As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz states in the Boston Review:

Even during the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies continued to war against the nations of the Diné and Apache, the Cheyenne and the Dakota, inflicting hideous massacres upon civilians and forcing their relocations. Yet when considering the history of U.S. imperialism and militarism, few historians trace their genesis to this period of internal empire-building. They should. The origin of the United States in settler colonialism—as an empire born from the violent acquisition of indigenous lands and the ruthless devaluation of indigenous lives—lends the country unique characteristics that matter when considering questions of how to unhitch its future from its violent DNA.

So, when I speak to the veterans and their families I work with on this matter of America’s soul wrapped in the banner of decimating other peoples who were here first, there is bloviating, knee-jerk proclamations that the victors enjoy the spoils, and that there is a god-given right to the American (white) ideal of moving the world toward His image.

This calculus I deploy for the homeless, those who have been screwed-blued-and-tattooed by the systems of oppression, by those debt collectors, those police and sheriff departments, by the judges and lawyers, top and bottom feeders all: I remind them that the so-called victors in their America are the One percent, including cretins from Hollywood, all the way to former generals/lobbyists/ contractors, and to include their sacred religious snake oil men like Graham. I remind them the wars they maybe have participated in were wars of oppression and wars of profits, completely tied to the ideals of screwing and stealing from your neighbor. That karmic doozy comes boomeranging back in the form of the victors on Wall Street, in the Boardrooms, and at the corporate tables of the Military-Pharma-Med-Prison-Education-Real Estate-Chemical-IT-Retail Complex. These too are the American ideals they supposedly signed up to protect with their lives in someone else’s country.

Again, what are we fighting for, sir?

This country’s leaders have always been Bill-Barak-Donald; Bezos-Adelson-Walton; CNN-FOX-Breitbart. “Money talks and money rules” is not some new Mar-a-Lago printed saying on Trump Condoms! As I continually told my 32-year military veteran father, his “work” in Korea, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, et al was work for-by-and-because of the elites, the ones making two-bit Tin Soldiers jump through burning buildings and forced marches up another Pork Chop-Hamburger-Gizzard Hill. Marching orders by these bastions of money power and debt dread have been the history of these Un-united States.

Of course, the soldiers who are of color rarely jump on this Sherman Tank towed “bandwagon,” but to be sure, we talk about their own dire circumstances enveloped in the same sort of so-called “The Victors Enjoying the Spoils” mentality. The spoils include a complete but suppressed history of theft, lynchings, treaty breaking, incarcerations, land despoilments, eminent domain.

Black men and women fighting against black men and women from their mothership — Africa. AFRICOM. Imagine, a Black Alliance for Peace, and a movement to stop US military involvement in Africa, and again these disruptions of the narrative of white supremacy get flummoxed, and the irony of brown and black and red soldiers fighting for what, who knows, but definitely part of the system of oppression of their own people.

So, again, I go for the jugular, the fact that my old man and I argued much about the military’s legitimacy while on the same hand he agreed in my pursuit of journalism, writing, teaching, and education:

Not only does there need to be a mass movement in the U.S. to shut down AFRICOM, this mass movement needs to become inseparably bound with the movement that has swept this country to end murderous police brutality against Black and Brown people. The whole world must begin to see AFRICOM and the militarization of police departments as counterparts.

 Netfa Freeman, of Pan-African Community Action (PACA) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). Freeman represents PACA, a BAP member organization, on BAP’s Coordinating Committee.

It cost $267 million to fund AFRICOM in 2018. Probably a lot more in dark money and secret budgets; let alone the billions coming from the Economic Hit Men:

That money is stolen from Africans/Black people in the U.S. to terrorize and steal resources from our sisters and brothers on the African continent. Instead, that money should be put toward meeting our human needs in the U.S. and toward reparations for people in every African nation affected by U.S. imperialism.

—  Vanessa Beck, BAP research team lead and Coordinating Committee member.

So, them’s fighting words, as the white damaged veterans reach for words, epithets, rejoinders, and false dichotomies in the form of, Might Makes Right. There is a greater good in what us mere mortals see. Money Talks, of course, as many of them believe this irreligious, woman thumper, chubby bully, inconceivably smut-riddled man is THEIR commander in chief.

This ground truthing isn’t a hot commodity on the lefty or progressive or socialist web sites, for sure, where their own respective tidy thinking is vaunted over messy shit coming from the mouths of people scratching for a living doing this dirty work of counseling assuredly lost, wounded, broken and in many cases, mean as cuss souls.

That 35,000-foot Noam Chomsky view is heralded over the gutter view, and it’s no deep search for meaning to understand the hive and the mob mentality colonizing those Democratic Socialists of America folk, those pro-Israel-at-any-cost Bernie folk, those Pried from My Cold Dead Hand NRA folk. You got the Godfather Cuomo in Albany getting some robed lion of repression judge to legally change his name to Mario Amazon Direct Cuomo, with all the dildos and vibrators free for life!

Trump or Biden, Adelson or Soros, Chris Wallace or Rachel Maddow, Daryl Hannah or Caitlyn Jenner. Charmin or Cottenelle. Coke or Pepsi. Prozac or Zoloft. Raytheon or Northrup Grumman. Mad dog Mattis or Old Blood and Guts Patton. Steelers or Florida State. A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody.

The trenches are rarely delineated or written about, just these huge “investigative research white papers” on the power of the elite to powerfully corrupt all systems that were supposed to be set up to help-aid-assist-protect-empower-develop we the people’s communities. However, there are no more communities, just chaos (controlled chaos), disruptive technologies-economies-structural systems of repressions. Just Madison Avenue, Just Manufactured Narratives, Just Fallen Anti-Heroes, Just Entertainment.

Feeding the dopamine hits as the marketers of disaster-demented-demolition capitalism control all markets, all psychologies, all media, all armies.

The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.

— Eric Fromm, The Sane Society

Cuba’s First Military Doctors (Part 2)

[Part 1 of this article addressed the need for Cuba’s participation in conflicts in Zaire, the Congo and Guinea-Bissau during the 1960s to remain concealed for over three decades. It covered the background to the struggles, what Cubans found in Africa, the role of race relations in Cuba’s campaigns, and the recruitment of doctors. Part 2 explores the working conditions of revolutionary military doctors, physical and emotional consequences on participating physicians, interactions with African civilians, Cuba’s first large medical scholarship program, the first mass vaccination effort in Africa, and how Cuba’s military and medical efforts affected Africa.]

Military Doctors at Work

Physicians found working conditions to be quite different from Cuban polyclinics.  It was very clear to Virgilio Camacho that “although I was a doctor, I was armed because at any moment I might have to participate in combat.”1 The Cuban doctors practiced in small groups.  In the Congo, the group of Rodrigo Álvarez included a surgeon, an orthopedic, and two pediatricians.  Later, they were joined by an anesthesiologist nurse and dentists.2 In 1966, Domingo Díaz traveled toward Guinea-Bissau as 1 of 9 physicians.  Once there, he was assigned to Saará in the northern region where there were “the only three doctors and there were no Cuban nurses.”  They worked closely with several young Guineans and trained them as nurses.3

Since the Cuban staff rotated and PAIGC policy was to understate the extent of their involvement, some writers are not aware of the more than 40 Cuban doctors who served in Guinea-Bissau between 1966 and 1974 as historian Piero Gleijeses carefully documents.4

The physicians were forced to minimize their use of modest resources.  When Amado Alfonso Delgado reached his assigned eastern front in Guinea-Bissau he found the hospital grounds consisted of “four huts: one for the wounded; one was a kitchen; one for supplies; and one, a little further away, for the doctor.”5

Juan Antonio Sánchez “was in Tanzania for a military mission from 1969 to 1970.  I was a medical internist at Pemba Island.  Cuba had permission from Tanzanian government as long as their presence was secret.  There were no Cuban troops, only three doctors.”  Their “operating room had been a garage.”6

The priority for Cuban doctors was always the health of combatants.  They were treated for bullet wounds, fractures and health issues such as hernias and tropical diseases.  There were many surgeries including the one in which Héctor Vera participated:

Four men who had been injured by a grenade arrived.  The one who was seriously injured was operated on at night and survived.  We put him on a table; Che held a lantern; Oliva gave him anesthesia; Tabito operated; Lagomasino worked as an assistant; and I observed.7

Virgilio Camacho was in the southern front of Guinea-Bissau where the Portuguese frequently ambushed civilians who helped supply the military.  Several Cubans died or were injured in these attacks.8 Amado Alfonso Delgado illustrates the difficulties of surgery during combat:

We operated whenever there were battles. Small reconnaissance planes passed overhead frequently, and when they returned multiple times we moved the camp because an attack was almost certain to follow.  The hospital was burned four times.  Every time a plane flew overhead two times they attacked us … We were between two rivers.  Planes and boats kept coming by and destroyed almost all the canoes we could use to flee … Most of the time we operated in places where we could set up a tiny hospital.  They brought us people who had stepped on a mine or were wounded in an ambush.  Almost always the wounded arrived at night and we had to operate by the light of bundles of grass.  I did about 50 operations like this including several amputations.  We cut dry grass, folded it over, and tied it with straw, and used it as a candle.  Sometimes we couldn’t see what we were operating on, even with 8 or 10 wicks like this.9

Other than Military Medicine

Cubans felt obligated to treat civilians injured in attacks which meant that there was an overlap between military and non-military medicine.  Amado Alfonso Delgado became acutely aware that a lack of specialists had its costs.  He describes an event in Guinea-Bissau:

…a bomb fell very close to a woman and injured her in the abdomen.  Since I didn’t have my assistant with me, I had to read from a booklet to find out how to apply anesthesia.  I had to open her abdomen to see if she had peritonitis.  I gave her a local anesthetic, and just as I was about to give the general, a plane dropped a bomb very close to us.  The woman jumped up with her wound half open and ran away.  I never saw her again.  Later I learned that she had been found dead four kilometers from the tiny hospital.10

Domingo Díaz had a more positive experience in the northern front:

One day in Saará they brought us a boy about four years old named Kumba who had a large wound in his left leg.  His good spirit impressed us; he didn’t have a tear or expression of pain.  A few hours before the Portuguese attacked a nearby village that had no combatants and no protection.  Luckily, they were able to bring this little boy to our small rural hospital.  We cleaned the very dirty wound and partially sutured it because we didn’t want future complications such as gangrene.   During all the treatment without anesthesia, Kumba continued as before, without a tear or expression of pain.11

Cuban officials knew that the behavior of doctors toward civilians was as important for diplomatic relationships as troop discipline was for military advances.  When Cuban physicians first went to Algeria in 1963, Raúl Castro issued a strict code of conduct that included a prohibition of alcohol and intimate relations with women, and demanded absolute respect for Algerian traditions.  Che spoke to physicians in Zaire of the moral aspect of their mission: “I don’t want any scandal.  Anyone who is undisciplined will have to be counseled or sent back to Cuba.”  A couple of years later, the Cuban command in Guinea-Bissau replaced a doctor accused of not showing respect for local customs.12

The importance of this respect grew as contact between Cubans and Africans became closer.  Unlike Catholic and Protestant missionary doctors who stayed at fixed locations and required Africans to come to them, Cubans went on long walks to isolated villages to provide care.  As Zaireans learned of the arrival of Cuban doctors, “peasants from the surrounding area flocked in.”  Before the Cubans arrived, only nine doctors had provided care for 850,000 Congolese.  Hugo Spadafora, a Panamanian who was the only foreign doctor with the PAIGC, wrote that when the Cuban physicians arrived with medicine and equipment, “the quality of the hospital’s care increase exponentially.”13

The guidelines laid out by Raúl and Che served Cuban efforts well.  While their military allies in Zaire were often accused of mistreating local people, there were “no reports of the Cubans perpetrating any crimes or acts of violence against the population.”14

Instead, the Cubans won people’s trust by doing countless simple procedures.  These included tooth extractions, operations for hernias and cataracts, and treatments for high fever, diarrhea, confusion and stomach and shoulder pain.  In Tanzania, Justo Piñero recalled that “most patients were civilian and a few were military.  The most frequent problems were malnutrition, malaria, pneumonia and parasites.”15

Amado Alfonso Delgado learned to treat parasitic diseases he had never seen in Cuba:

I saw whole villages with trachoma, an infection of the eyes and eyelids that leaves people blind.  I visited villages where almost everyone was blind.  I saw people with advanced leprosy without fingers. There was a sickness, miasis, produced by a fly bite that causes an abscess from which worms grow.  Another produces boils on the body, called oncocerciasis, that is a type of filaria.  This disease has a special treatment.  There is a worm that gets under the skin and the Guineans use a little stick to which they fasten a palm thread and put it in the boil and roll it around until they pull out an enormous worm called ‘the worm of Guinea.’  There are many parasites and harmful insects such as the jigger flea (nigua), that gets under people’s skin in dry weather and causes a boil.  You have to extract the parasite, which looks like a tick.16

Perhaps the most unexpected tragedy was a Cuban soldier dying from eating a strawberry.  They had no idea of how acidic the fruit could be and he had a perforated ulcer.  “By the time he reached me” Domingo Díaz remembers, “he was in agony.  We did all we could to stop the bleeding, and since we didn’t have surgical instruments, we tried to move him to the small hospital in Boké.  But he died on the road.”17

Though the Cubans tried to attend to civilian medical needs, operations had to be authorized by the PAIGC zone director due to shortage of materials.  This required creative searches for alternative materials, such as using coconut water (which is sterile) in intravenous fluids.  On multiple occasions, Dr. Camacho “had to suture patients with domestic sewing thread,” which led to deal-making with local thread vendors.18

Truly International Medicine

The riches of Africa were being drained out as its people lay crippled or dying from totally curable diseases which did not peak the interest of wealthy Western investors.  This was the case with polio.  When Rodrigo Álvarez arrived in the Congo, he saw that:

Many suffered from polio.  I visited an asylum attended by a single nun which was full of children with this disease.  The children were crawling across the floor in very bare surroundings.  The nun didn’t have supplies or staff to deal with them.  I operated on dozens of these children … The French had left nothing of the infrastructure; there were no lawyers or engineers; and only two native doctors.2

Rodolfo Puente was the manager and one of the principle advocates for a polio vaccination campaign.  He ran into two Soviet medical staff who were vaccinating as one of their duties.  He asked for 5000 doses, which they happily gave him, and made arrangements with the mayor to vaccinate students.   Realizing the seriousness of the situation and knowing that Cuba had recently conducted its own polio vaccination campaign, Dr. Puente called MINSAP in Havana for permission to take on a similar endeavor.  MINSAP director Machado approved and assigned Dr. Helenio Ferrer, Cuba’s Director of Epidemiology, to fly to Moscow for the vaccines.  The Soviets agreed to provide 200,000 doses to the Congo for about $4000.  Following appeals by the Cubans, they agreed to donate the vaccines, which arrived in June 1966.19

There were too few doctors and nurses to administer the vaccines; but, since they were in a caramel, it was possible to train others to distribute them.  In cooperation with the Congolese government, its militia, the Federation of Women, and Cuban troops, Dr. Ferrer coordinated the vaccination of over 61,000 children in the first such campaign in Africa.20

However, the attempted coup of June 27 blocked administration of the second dose.  Since accounts tend to be vague regarding whether this would prevent the first dose from being effective, I asked that question directly to Dr. Justo Piñero, who was in the Congo from September 1966 to November 1967.  He explained that, “as a result of not getting the second dose, there would be the same rate of polio.”  He returned to the Congo in May 1969 and witnessed the Congolese Ministry of Public Health administering both doses, which were provided by the Soviets.  He strongly believed that the earlier joint experience with the Cubans was critical in making the 1969 effort successful.21

In Guinea-Bissau, Domingo Díaz’ group found themselves with no Cuban nurses, so they trained several local youth.  They were so impressed with the work of the Guineans that they obtained permission from Cabral to bring four back to attend Cuban nursing school, from which they graduated.3

A much larger venture happened earlier in the Congo when Cuban doctors noticed dedicated young people studying at night under street lights.  They asked the Congolese government about sending some of them to Cuba to study.  It agreed, and, on January 24, 1966, 254 youth boarded a ship for Havana.  This was the first time a significant number of foreign scholarship students went to Cuba.  Nevertheless, there were problems.  Rather than choosing students strictly on the basis of academic performance, many were selected according to personal connections or bribes.  By late 1967 more than 100 had returned home, at the request of themselves or Cuba.  Despite this, by 1978, 25 had Cuban medical degrees and others graduated as lab technicians or engineers.22

Cuban authorities soon decided that its military forces would leave Africa.  Yet medical personnel would continue with replacement teams of “pediatricians, orthopedics, surgeons, and ear-nose-throat specialists who would be civilians rather than military doctors.”23

Physicians, Heal Each Other

Cuban doctors provided preventive care and treatment not only to troops and civilians but also to themselves.  The most famous example was Che.  With him in Zaire, Rafaél Zerquera remembered the day Che’s malaria was complicated by an asthma attack.  Zerquera worried “How can I tell Fidel that I let Che die here?”  Che was not an exception.  Amado Alfonso Delgado, for example, treated himself three times for malaria.24

Virgilio Camacho spoke about how, soon after his arrival, acute jaundice caused another doctor, Jesús Pérez, to return to Cuba, leaving him with only one other doctor at their medical post.  A year later he was transferred to head the military hospital in Guinea-Bissau’s southern front because a doctor there was ill.25

The long walks and physical exhaustion of battlefield medicine took their toll.  When Domingo Díaz arrived in Guinea-Bissau he weighed 180 pounds.  He left 20 months later weighing 100 pounds.  He had experienced the unusual danger of disappearing shoes.

I returned to the base after it was completely destroyed, and I could not find any of my belongings, not even my tennis shoes.  This type of footwear was the best in the circumstances, since we had to cross many rivers, and they dried out much more rapidly than boots and were a lot lighter … during the first long walks, I lost all of my toenails…my feet were constantly wet and the hiking was forever…and in Cuba I had the habit of walking five kilometers every day.26

Some of their most unpleasant surprises awaited doctors upon completion of their African assignment.  Amado Alfonso Delgado recounted

The year that we returned almost all of us tested positive for filaria in the blood.  In the subtype Loa loa, it goes from vital organs to the eyes, leaving the person blind.  This was precisely the type we had.  Reading about it scared me a bit because it was said at that time, that there was not a guaranteed cure.  We were treated in a hospital for two months.27

Virgilio Camacho was also more than a little nervous:

I had filaria, which doesn’t exist in Cuba, and I had no idea until passing through the check point.  It required a double treatment: both for the adult and larva of the parasite.  They didn’t have the medicine in Conakry and had to look elsewhere.  Finally, I had both the intravenous injections and pills…We arrived in Cuba in January 1968.28

Impact, Reflection, Unanswered

By the end of the 1960s, when the Cuban revolutionary government had been in power for only 10 years, doctors had been through four different scenarios in Africa:

  1. In Algeria, they treated only civilians.
  2. In Zaire, the rebels showed little enthusiasm for victory.
  3. In the Congo, the militancy of the government proved to be empty rhetoric.
  4. In Guinea-Bissau, there was a successful military uprising with a strong commander and dedicated troops.

Cuba knew that US could invade at any time.  As a result of African expeditions and experience gained by military doctors, a new generation of physicians would be trained by those who had been through war and could teach others how to treat combat victims.

Perhaps the most lamentable irony of Cuba’s forays into Africa was that its most capable leader, Che Guevara, led guerrillas into the least promising front, Zaire.  Since no Cuban leader had been to sub-Saharan Africa for more than one day, the strategy of going to Zaire was based on misinformation, solidarity with Cuba’s own black population, and the defense of its revolution.  When Che ventured into his last battleground of Bolivia the following year, it was because he and Fidel agreed that Latin America must again occupy the foreground of Cuba’s participation in armed struggles.29

There had been very little connection between upheavals in the approach to medicine practiced on the island and what its doctors did overseas.30 Experiences of the polio campaign in Cuba were adopted in the campaign in the Congo.  The exposure to medical problems in Africa was invaluable for developing Cuban understanding of tropical and infectious diseases.  Nevertheless, nothing like Cuban polyclinics appeared in the battle conditions of Africa, where the necessity to provide emergency care was all-encompassing.

Cuban engagements in Africa left profound impacts, both on the host countries and on the Cubans who went.  Cuba learned that if students were to travel to the island for education, they must be screened for academic potential.  The Congo became prepared to complete its own vaccination campaign.  Guinea-Bissau recognized its debt to Cubans for its successful struggle for independence. “Many of our comrades are alive today only because of the Cuban medical assistance,” noted PAIGC official Francisco Pereira. “The Cuban doctors really performed a miracle.  I am eternally grateful to them: not only did they save lives, but they put their own lives at risk.  They were truly selfless.”31

White doctors who experienced the stressful conditions and parasitic diseases of Africa witnessed even greater sacrifice by black troops.  One reason that so many volunteered to serve in Africa was a feeling of urgency to spread the revolution.  Later, Olvaldo Cárdenas told Piero Gleijeses:

… we believed that at any moment they [the US] were going to strike us … and for us it was better to wage war abroad than in our own country.  This was the strategy of ‘Two or Three Vietnams;’ that is, distracting and dividing the enemy’s forces.  I never imagined then that I would be sitting here [in a living room in Havana] talking about it now—we all assumed that we were going to die young.32

When the volunteers returned to Cuba, they did not march in parades or receive any type of public praise.  There were no medals, decorations or material rewards.  Bound to secrecy, decades passed before they could share their stories.33 Yet the insights obtained by what they endured were essential for designing Cuban strategy, which is why Fidel grilled so many upon their quiet homecomings.

Before 1959, dedication to revolutionary medicine was expressed by students and doctors demanding full treatment for Cubans in poor urban and rural areas.  This became the foundation for doctors volunteering for international missions during the 1960s.  With the dawning of the 1970s, the question remained: Would sacrifices by the first doctors going to Africa come to fruition by medical staff playing a key role in toppling a major racist government on that continent?

A version of this article first appeared in Monthly Review.  The author thanks Rebecca Fitz for interview translation and John Kirk, Linda M. Whiteford and Steve Brouwer for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of the article.

• Read Part 1 here

  1. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Virgilio Camacho Duverger, Historias Secretas, 158.
  2. López’ interview with Dr. Rodrigo Álvarez Cambras, 78.
  3. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 123.
  4. Gleijeses, (2002), 202.
  5. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, Historias Secretas, 142.
  6. Author’s interview with Dr. Juan Antonio Sánchez, Havana, Cuba, February 9, 2016.
  7. López’ interview with Dr. Héctor Vera Acosta, 52.
  8. López’ interview with Dr. Virgilio Camacho Duverger, 161.
  9. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, Historias Secretas, 142-148.
  10. Ibid, 148.
  11. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 127.
  12. Gleijeses, (2002), 44, 201; López’ interview with Dr. Rafaél Zerquera Palacios, 29.
  13. López’ interview with Dr. Héctor Vera Acosta, 48; Gleijeses, (2002), 44, 168, 201.
  14. Gleijeses, (2002), 151.
  15. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 123; López’ interview with Dr. Julián Álvarez Blanco, 90; Author’s interview with Dr. Justo Piñero Fernández,
  16. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, Historias Secretas, 149-150.
  17. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 131-132.
  18. López’ interview with Dr. Virgilio Camacho Duverger, 160.
  19. López’ interview with Dr. Rodolfo Puente Ferro, 99. 102-103. 105; Gleijeses, (2002), 168.
  20. Gleijeses, (2002), 169; López’ interview with Dr. Rodrigo Álvarez Cambras, 84.
  21. López’ interview with Dr. Rodrigo Álvarez Cambras, 84; Author’s interview with Dr. Justo Piñero Fernández.
  22. Gleijeses, (2002), 168, López’ interview with Dr. Rodolfo Puente Ferro, 104-105.
  23. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Julián Álvarez Blanco, Historias Secretas, 93.
  24. López’ interview with Dr. Rafaél Zerquera Palacios, 33-34; Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, Historias Secretas, 150.
  25. López’ interview with Dr. Virgilio Camacho Duverger, 158.
  26. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 130-133.
  27. López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, 150.
  28. López’ interview with Dr. Virgilio Camacho Duverger, 162.
  29. Gleijeses, (2002), 216.
  30. Don Fitz, “The Birth of Cuban Polyclinics,” Monthly Review, in press.
  31. Gleijeses, (2002), 203.
  32. Gleijeses, (2002), 203.
  33. Ibid.

Cuba’s First Military Doctors (Part 1)

[Part 1 of this two-part series addresses the need for Cuba’s participation in conflicts in Zaire, the Congo and Guinea-Bissau during the 1960s to remain concealed for over three decades. It covers the background to the struggles, what Cubans found in Africa, the role of race relations in Cuba’s campaigns, and the recruitment of doctors. Part 2 will explore the working conditions of revolutionary military doctors, physical and emotional consequences for participating physicians, interactions with African civilians, Cuba’s first large medical scholarship program, the first mass vaccination effort in Africa, and how Cuba’s military and medical efforts affected Africa.]

*****

Cuba’s deployment of military doctors to Africa in the 1960s was secret, known only at the highest level of government.  Accounts of these hidden efforts were not published until the beginning of the 21st century.

Multiple forces during that decade pulled Cuba toward struggles in sub-Saharan Africa.  First was the mushrooming of popular movements across the globe.  The US civil rights movement was joined by millions opposing the war on Viet Nam.  Zaire won independence from Belgium in June 1960 and the popular Patrice Lumumba became its first prime minister.  After leading the National Liberation Front to victory over French domination in 1962, Ahmed Ben Bella was elected as the first president of Algeria.  In August, 1966 Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to thwart the growth of capitalism in China.  May 1968 saw a huge left upsurge in France going beyond the Communist Party.

A second force pushing Cuba’s foreign policy came from the US.  Its continuous violence gave a clear message that the best defense for the island would be an international offense.  Two decades earlier, the US had experimented with nuclear extermination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  During the previous decade, the US had slaughtered roughly 20% of the population of North Korea and the CIA engineered the overthrow of the progressive Jacobo Arbenz government in Guatemala.  Fresh on the mind of Cubans was the connivance of John and Bobby Kennedy in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 missile crisis.  The US began its series of efforts to kill Fidel Castro about the same time the CIA contemplated how to poison Lumumba.1 Asserting dominion over Latin America, Lyndon Johnson invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965.

In the meantime, the Soviet Union was not acting like a reliable ally.  The USSR had not sent troops to fight in Korea and did not do so in Viet Nam, even after the massive US build-up following the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident.  Nikita Khrushchev had settled the missile crisis without bothering to consult Fidel.  His successor, Leonid Brezhnev, was clear that Cuba should accept the subordinate status of sugar producer for the Soviet bloc.

Furthermore, Latin American Communist Parties (CPs) did not take kindly to Cuba’s “foco theory” of revolution.  Those CPs centered on urban working class movements while the Cuban leadership looked to a dedicated vanguard in the countryside, garnering support through armed struggle.  As Che Guevara wrote:

A small group of men who are determined, supported by the people, and not afraid of death…can overcome a regular army.  This was the lesson of the Cuban revolution.2

Unlike countries in Latin America, those in Africa did not have established Communist Parties hostile to guerrilla efforts.3   With at least a third of Cubans being of African heritage, Cuban leaders felt beckoned from across the Atlantic.

Hope Meets Reality in Africa

Despite efforts by the US to isolate Cuba, by 1964 it had embassies in the African countries of Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Morocco and Tanzania.  Lumumba had been murdered in January 1961 by allies of Moise Tshombe.  The Simbas (lions), admirers of Lumumba, began a guerrilla struggle, routed government forces in 1964, and seemed to have strong revolutionary potential.4

In December 1964 Che began a three month trek to Algeria, Ghana, the Congo, Guinea, Mali, Benin, Tanzania, and Egypt.  Planning to lead an African initiative himself, Che went to develop strategies and agreements with liberation movements.  During his January 1965 meeting with leaders in Tanzania, Che emphasized the Simba upsurge and proposed Zaire as the location for centralized training.  They disagreed with him, each wanting training camps in their own country.5

The more Che came to know the heads of several organizations, the more skeptical he became.  He observed that they “live comfortably in hotels and have turned rebellion into a profession, at time lucrative…”6 Once on the battlefield, his doubts were confirmed:

Che had been told that he would find several thousand well-armed Simbas, eager to fight.  There were, in fact, some 1000 to 1500 widely dispersed rebels, who had no idea of how to maintain their modern weapons … they lacked a unified command.

The scouting teams … brought back grim reports from the fronts: idle rebels who … did not know how to use their firearms and showed no inclination to attack or to prepare to defend themselves. Everywhere chaos, disorganization, and lack of discipline.7

Cuban leaders, soldiers and doctors wrote of their frustration in Zaire.  In November 1965, after a governmental coup, a Simba leader notified Che that they wanted to end the war.  Che returned to Cuba with part of the unit he commanded, while others went to different African locations.8

The neighboring Congo was headed by Alphonse Massamba-Débat, whose socialist views were similar to those of the Chinese Communist Party.9 In August 1965, Fidel dispatched a unit to the Congo which joined the 50 or so Cubans already there.  The group was headed by Jorge Risquet, who was “the descendant of an African slave, her white master, a Chinese indentured servant, and a Spanish immigrant.”10

In the Congo the Cubans discovered that the rhetoric of the country’s leaders did not match their politics, which were based on opportunism and personal feuds.  Since Fidel had charged Risquet with defending the Congo, when an attempted coup broke out on June 27, 1966, the Cubans came to the defense of the government.  Wanting to resolve the dispute diplomatically rather than with force, Risquet appointed a doctor to lead the maneuvers. The rebels backed down when confronted by the determination of the smaller number of Cubans.  On July 6, the revolt ended with only one Congolese death.11

It soon appeared to the Cubans that their major task in the Congo was protecting one faction from another.  Risquet persuaded Havana that the best thing for them to do was to leave, which they soon did.  Two years later, a successful coup overthrew Massamba-Débat’s government.12

The uprising against the Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau stood in sharp contrast.  Even US intelligence reports described it as having “Africa’s most successful liberation movement.”13 During his 1965 journey through Africa, Che spoke with Amílcar Cabral, who was head of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC, for its acronym in Portuguese).14

Fidel recognized the importance of the Non-Aligned Movement, which coalesced third world countries breaking from the yoke of imperialism.  He persuaded those organizing the Tricontinental Congress to meet in Havana on January 3, 1966 and invited Latin American groups dedicated to armed struggle.  It was there that Fidel and Amílcar Cabral first met and spoke extensively.  Fidel promised Cabral doctors, military instructors, and mechanics.15 Both made impressive speeches to the delegates and Fidel emerged as a champion of revolutionary movements.

For a critical year, Victor Dreke headed Cuba’s military undertaking in Guinea-Bissau.  Dreke was a black Commander who received extremely high praise from Che for his efforts in Zaire.  Dreke was impressed by the discipline of the PAIGC.  When he returned to Cuba in late 1968, Cabral’s forces had strengthened their position.  The Portuguese lost ground even while increasing their troops from 20,000 to 25,000.16

Cuba never had more than 60 soldiers in Guinea-Bissau.  This was one way Cabral kept the PAIGC in command, the other being the restriction of foreign military aid only to Cubans.  Yet, the Cubans’ roles as military advisers and teachers proved invaluable.  When Castro went to Africa in 1972, the PAIGC was the only force on the continent successfully fighting against a white regime.17

Cuba also played minor roles in Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Tanzania and possibly other countries.18 However, this article concentrates on Zaire, the Congo, and Guinea-Bissau, which were, by far, its major arenas.19 Much of the information regarding experiences of Cuban physicians in Africa is from extensive interviews with military doctors deployed in the three countries, as well as Tanzania.

White Doctors, Black Soldiers

Cuban doctors going to Africa were almost all white while its troops were almost all black.  It was very rare for black people to become doctors before the revolution.  But they rose quickly to high positions in the revolutionary military.  Race was critical in every aspect of the African conflicts.

The US had strong advantages over Cuba in its influence of Africa: it could offer vastly more economic aid and wield the political power of its European allies, accrued by their history of conquest and ongoing domination.  But throughout the 1960s, the US was increasingly tied up in Viet Nam and its ongoing racism repulsed people around the globe.

Racism in the white regimes of Africa was blatant and horrific.  The London Observer reported that mercenaries paid to put down the Simba rebellion “not only shoot and hang prisoners after torturing them, but use them for target practice and gamble over the number of shots to kill them.”  One mercenary wrote in his memoirs of the “the White Giants—‘tall, vigorous Boers from South Africa; long-legged, slim and muscular Englishmen from Rhodesia’—who would restore, in Zaire, the white man to his proper place.”20

African resistance leaders realized that they could use the inability of racists to tell one group of black people from another to their advantage.  The revolutionaries in Zaire requested that the Cubans sent to their aid be black so they could pass undetected by US and Europe spies.  Cabral asked Cuban officials to send technicians who were “black or dark mulattoes so that they would blend in with his people.”  This fell into place with the PAIGC’s policy of denying that they involved any foreigners.21

When Fidel asked Dreke to select troops who would serve with Che in Zaire, he specified that he had to “choose a platoon of men who have shown their mettle, who are all volunteers and who are dark-skinned blacks.”  Both Dr. Rodrigo Álvarez Cambras and Dr. Julián Álvarez Blanco did not know that Africa was their destination until they saw that almost all the combatants in training camps were black.22

This meant very different experiences for those traveling by ship to Africa.  Dr. Álvarez remembers Pavlovian conditioning when traveling aboard the Soviet ship Félix Dzerzhinsky:

Since the doctors were all white, there were no problems with anyone seeing us.  But the troops were all black, and, in order to make sure that none of the passengers or US spy planes would guess the purpose of the mission, they had to stay in the lower deck of the ship, which was hot and had poor ventilation.  Occasionally, they could come out for brief times at night.

Since the Russian food was very strong with disagreeable odors, the comrades who had to stay below without fresh air would get nauseated and vomit when they smelled it.  The captain had a gong that he hit in front of a microphone in order to announce that it was time to eat.  Some of the comrades started vomiting when they heard the gong.

At that point, I told Risquet that he had to tell the ship’s captain to stop banging the gong.  He replied that it was me, as a doctor, who had to have the conversation with the captain.  When I did so, that robust Russian failed to understand the situation and argued that it was a tradition that he could not violate.23

Though the white doctors could lean over the side of the ship to vomit, it must have been profoundly unpleasant for black troops confined to the lower deck.  In response, and to the outrage of the Russian captain, the Cubans stole the gong and heaved it into the Atlantic.24

How successful was the strategy of recruiting black troops?  It significantly slowed the ability of Western powers to detect Cuban involvement.  A British adviser in Zaire observed US agents looked “for whites and their eyes … passed over Cuban blacks or mulattoes.”  The same was true for the Congo, where bewildered officials from the US, France, West Germany and England “…were unable to ascertain how many Cubans were in the Congo.”  A Belgian ambassador could not tell if there were 100 or 800 Cubans since “they are difficult to pick out because they are all colored.”25 It was likely a serious affront to the dignity of white supremacists to see black Cubans so successfully bamboozling them.

Recruiting Doctors

Western observers could only be successfully confused about Cuban involvement if Cuba’s own recruits were in the dark concerning their destination.  Rodolfo Puente was the only one of nine physicians interviewed by Hedelberto López who was openly told where he was going (the Congo).26 Others were led to believe that they were going to Algeria, Viet Nam, or “other lands,” or that they should tell their families that they would be studying in the Soviet Union.27

The physicians were accustomed to disruption in their careers.  Of the 9 interviewed by López Blanch, 2 had to delay when they began medical school because Batista had closed it at the end of 1956.  The other seven started school before the 1956 closing but had to halt their studies and resume them after the 1959 revolution.

Waiting to discover exactly where they would be serving was only one indication of the vital importance of their mission.  Every one of the nine physicians interviewed in Historias Secretas met some combination of Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, Che Guevara, MINSAP (the Cuban Health Department) head José Ramón Machado, Commander Jorge Risquet, Commander Victor Dreke, and Amílcar Cabral either before, during, and/or after their trip to Africa.

Preparing to leave for Zaire, Rafaél Zerquera recalled that “April 10, 1965 was the happiest day of my life when I was interviewed by Fidel Castro.”28 Shortly after arriving in Zaire, Diego Lagomasino “gave Che a suitcase with asthma medicine and bullets for a M-1 gun. Meeting someone like Che had a big impact on [him].”29 Héctor Vera spoke with Fidel upon returning from Zaire: “Fidel asked about sicknesses, malaria, how we were able to diagnose, and what treatments we used.  After chatting, he told us that we could not divulge anything about the mission.”30

Before departing for the Congo, Rodrigo Álvarez described having breakfast with Fidel.

[He] spoke to us of Africa in general without specifying the country.  He asked if we had pistols, and I said, yes, a P-38.  He told his assistant to find a better weapon and he brought a Stich of 20 shots.  Fidel saw that I wasn’t wearing a watch and told me that it was important for a doctor going to war to have one.  He took off one of the two watches he was wearing, a Longines, and gave it to me.”31

When Diego Lagomasino did his post graduate Rural Medical Service (RMS) in Santo Tomás, he worked alone and “had to be the doctor, nurse, distribute medications, and look for supplies.”32  This multi-tasking helped prepare him for Africa.  Rafaél Zerquera’s RMS was used as a screening to see if he was suitable for Zaire.  He explained that …

When I graduated, a document circulated asking where we would like to do our RMS and I wrote ‘wherever the revolution needs me.’  José Ramón Machado of MINSAP, called me to his office and said that there was a conflict zone in the Sierra Maestra, where a group had burned the medical post and killed the doctor.  He asked me if I was still disposed to going.33

Zerquera replied that he would go where Machado assigned him.  After a short stint in the Sierra Maestra, Machado called him back to let him know that an important but highly risky international mission awaited him and Zerquera was soon on his way to Zaire.

Once they learned of their destinations, the doctors still had little idea of what was in store for them. Luís Peraza recalled that all he “knew about Africa was the Tarzan movies.”  Impressions of their experiences differed sharply according to country, with Zaire being the gloomiest.  As the curtain was drawing to a close in Zaire, Che called a meeting of Communist Party members and asked who still thought that they could win.  Only 2 military leaders and 2 doctors raised their hands and Che concluded that they might have been showing him personal support.  Che then asked who would be willing to fight until death and all the hands went up.34

Rafaél Zerquera recollected that the Simbas did not seem interested in preparing for a guerrilla struggle.  “It was an experience but it wasn’t pleasant.  If it had been a sacrifice with a reward, I would have felt satisfied.  But it was not rewarding.”35

Justo Piñero had different feelings about the Congo.

The population identified with us.  We bought things from them.  We went to the same places and knew the local people from seeing them on the street.36

By far, the most positive memories were of Guinea-Bissau.  Domingo Díaz knew “many brave Guinean officers and soldiers who would have given their lives to prevent a Cuban from falling into the hands of the enemy.”37 Dr. Milton Hechevarría emphasized that when he got back to Cuba, he “couldn’t forget Guinea-Bissau.”38

Whatever country they went to, Cuban doctors faced a combination of stressful conditions that they were unlikely to have experienced at home: incredibly rough terrain, enemy fire, and unpleasant and dangerous animals.  Diego Lagomasino described arriving in Zaire: “We had to go to the base camp that was on the top of a high ridge.  We left at 6 in the morning and at 7 in the evening we were still climbing.  Never in my life had I seen a ridge that tall.  I thought I was going to die.”39

Looking back on the same walk, Héctor Vera felt like he could not bear the weight of his pistol, ammunition, medical supplies and personal belongings in his knapsack.  He was saved by a Zairean boy who motioned that he would carry it for him.40

In Guinea-Bissau, Domingo Díaz went on strenuous walks for 7 or 8 days, walks with deep holes that could not be seen after it rained. “In this region, we didn’t measure time with a watch,” Díaz recounted.  Instead, time was measured “with distance, which is to say one day’s walk, half a day walk.”  He concluded that the terrain was so rough that “in Cuba there was no possibility of training for this type of event.”41

The land intensified military dangers.  To avoid detection by the enemy, Héctor Vera’s group crossed Lake Tanganika with several Simbas who began lighting matches to see where they were going.  The Cubans in the boat told them not to because there was a gasoline motor that could catch on fire.  However, they replied that there was no other way to see and continued with the matches.  Upon arriving in Zaire, they had not gone 50 meters before they had to fall to the ground as enemy planes flew overhead.42

In Guinea-Bissau, the Portuguese attacked Amado Alfonso Delgado’s group with napalm while 15 helicopters landed to hunt them.  They survived by running from 7 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon.43

The doctors encountered insects, reptiles and other creatures they had never seen before.  In an emergency military undertaking in the Congo, Rodrigo Álvarez saw anthills so tall that they prevented their plane from landing.44 Fleeing from the Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau, Amado Alfonso Delgado bumped into an enormous beehive.

I had over 300 stings.  Only 10 are dangerous and can send a person into shock.  But I was under so much tension that my body was producing steroids, which is exactly the treatment used.  None of the stings became inflamed and the other six with me had the same luck.”45

While none of Cuba’s snakes are poisonous, many are in the Congo, where Julián Álvarez thought he ran across them everywhere.46

Waters in Guinea-Bissau were often inhospitable.  Domingo Díaz described walking through a lake for hours with water up to their chests.  “It was full of leeches and they advised me to tie my pants tight and walk with my arms up so they could not get in.  When we got out we were attacked by mosquitoes that bit through my coat.”  Another day, they found that:

The Corubal and Gaba Rivers met where they emptied into the sea.  It was like an arm of the sea where there were sharks, hippopotamuses, and crocodiles.  As we crossed in canoes made from tree trunks they told me to be careful because a man had recently fallen in and never reappeared.47

• A version of this article first appeared in Monthly Review. The author thanks Rebecca Fitz for interview translation and John Kirk, Linda M. Whiteford and Steve Brouwer for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of the article.

  1. Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 61.
  2. Ibid, 22.
  3. Peter G. Bourne, Fidel: A Biography of Fidel Castro (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1986), 255.
  4. Gleijeses, pp. 30, 60, 61.
  5. Bourne, 260; Gleijeses, 80, 85.
  6. Gleijeses, 87.
  7. Gleijeses, 111,114.
  8. Bourne, 261.
  9. Bourne, 260.
  10. Piero Gleijeses, (2006), Risquet, Jorge. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Cited in Helen Yaffe,
  11. Gleijeses, (2002) 161, 163, 170,171.
  12. Ibid, 183.
  13. Ibid, 185.
  14. Hedelberto López Blanch, Historias Secretas de Médicos Cubanos (Centro Cultural de la Torriente Brau: La Habana, Cuba, 2005), 113,114.
  15. Gleijeses, (2002), 187.
  16. Ibid, 190-191.
  17. Ibid, 191, 208.
  18. Ibid, 183-184, Author’s interview with Dr. Juan Antonio Sánchez, Havana, Cuba, February 9, 2016.
  19. Two Congos had revolutionary movements.  The “Belgian Congo” was sometimes referred to as Congo Leopoldville from the name of its capital city.  Upon independence in 1960, it took the name Kinshasa, became Zaire in 1971 and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997.  The current article refers to it as Zaire.  The “French Congo” was sometimes referred to as Congo Brazzaville from the name of its capital, or the Congo. After independence in 1960 it became the Republic of the Congo, the People’s Republic of the Congo in 1969 and, after 1991 the Republic of the Congo again.  The current article refers to it as the Congo.
  20. Gleijeses, (2002), 71, 73.
  21. Ibid, 89, 188, 208.
  22. López, Historias Secretas, 67, 89.
  23. Ibid, 76-77.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Gleijeses, (2002), 136, 166.
  26. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Rodolfo Puente Ferro, Historias Secretas, 101.
  27. Gleijeses, (2002); 199, Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, Historias Secretas, 115.
  28. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Rafaél Zerquera Palacios, Historias Secretas, 25.
  29. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Diego Lagomasino Comesaña, Historias Secretas, 60.
  30. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Héctor Vera Acosta, Historias Secretas, 53.
  31. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Rodrigo Álvarez Cambras, Historias Secretas, 75.
  32. López’ interview with Dr. Diego Lagomasino Comesaña, 56-57.
  33. López’ interview with Dr. Rafaél Zerquera Palacios, 22-23.
  34. Gleijeses, (2002), 154, 200.
  35. López’ interview with Dr. Rafaél Zerquera Palacios, 36-37.
  36. Author’s interview with Dr. Justo Piñero Fernández, Havana, Cuba, February 9, 2016.
  37. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 132.
  38. Gleijeses, (2002), 213.
  39. López’ interview with Dr. Diego Lagomasino Comesaña, 59-60.
  40. López’ interview with Dr. Héctor Vera Acosta, 43.
  41. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 120.
  42. López’ interview with Dr. Héctor Vera Acosta, 42.
  43. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, Historias Secretas, 144-6.
  44. López’ interview with Dr. Rodrigo Álvarez Cambras, 80.
  45. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, Historias Secretas, 144.
  46. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Julián Álvarez Blanco, Historias Secretas, 90.
  47. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 140.

Remembering Canada’s Military Support for Colonialism in Africa

Now that November 11 and the official “remembering” of our “heroes”, their “bravery” and “greatness” is over, it is a good time to take a deeper, more critical look at Canada’s participation in wars.

While on Remembrance Day we are told to  “thank a soldier for your freedoms” and the commemorations talk about “defending democracy”, the reality of wars’ connections to colonialism, imperialism, and oppression are ignored.

A Global News story about Nova Scotia university students visiting Canadian World War II soldiers’ graves in West Africa highlights the matter. The report ignored that The Gambia, where the Canadians were buried, was a British colony at the time and that Canadian forces legitimated European rule in Africa during the country’s only ‘morally justifiable’ war.

(Nazi expansionism’s threat to British interests, not opposition to fascism or anti-Semitism, led Ottawa to battle but WWII was ultimately justifiable.)

During the Second World War Canadians fought by land, sea and air in colonial Africa. Describing a support mission in 1943 a Hamilton Spectator headline noted: “Canada Supplied 29 Ships and 3000 of Her Sailors for North African Action”. Many Canadian fighter pilots also operated over the continent. “During the Second World War,” notes Canadian African studies scholar Douglas Anglin, “considerable numbers of Canadian airmen served in R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] squadrons in various parts of the continent, particularly North Africa.” More than a half-dozen Canadian pilots defended the important Royal Air Force base at Takoradi, Ghana, and others traveled there to follow the West African Reinforcement Route, which delivered thousands of fighter planes to the Middle East and North African theatre of the war.

After Germany invaded France part of the French government relocated to the south. The Vichy regime continued to control France’s colonies during WWII. In a bid to prod Philippe Pétain’s regime to re-enter the war alongside the Allies, Canadian diplomat Pierre Dupuy visited on three occasions between 1940 and 1941. Describing Dupuy’s mission and the thinking in Ottawa at the time, Robin Gendron notes, “for the Canadian government as for the Allies in general, the colonies had no separate existence outside of France. In practical terms, the colonies were France.” Later in the war Prime Minister Mackenzie King expressed a similar opinion regarding Britain’s colonies. “In December 1942,” Gendron reports, “King informed the British Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs that colonial policy must remain the responsibility of the colonial powers, and he reiterated this position in late 1944 when the British government asked for Canada’s input on the latest proposals for the postwar settlement of colonial issues.”

Without Canada’s major contribution to WWII Britain and France may not have held their African colonies. And during World War I, which is the origin of Remembrance Day, Canadians helped the British, French and Belgians expand their colonial possessions in Africa. As I detail in Canada and Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation, Canada was modestly involved in two African theatres of WWI.

In the lead-up to the Great War hundreds of Canadians, usually trained at Kingston’s Royal Military College, fought to help Britain (and the Belgian King) conquer various parts of the continent. Canadians led military expeditions, built rail lines and surveyed colonial borders across the continent in the late 1800s and early 1900s. More significantly, four hundred Canadians traveled halfway across the world to beat back anti-colonial resistance in the Sudan in 1884-85 while a decade and a half later thousands more fought in defence of British imperial interests in the southern part of the continent.

If we are going to learn anything from history, Remembrance Day commemorations should include discussion of Canadian military support for European colonialism in Africa and elsewhere. To really understand war and its causes, we must take a look at its victims as well as its victors.