Monthly Archives: May 2011

Inside the FARC: Colombia’s guerilla fighters

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By Karl Penhaul
May 30, 2011

Fire spits from the muzzle of a Russian-made machine gun. Assault rifles join the fray.

Leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and Colombian counterinsurgency troops trade shots across a gorge.

On a nearby plateau, 100 metres of thick brush separate two other rebel squads from their adversaries.

Grenades echo as they explode.

“It’s tough fighting in all this mud,” said a guerrilla named “Adrian”, who flinched with every shot he or his comrades fired. ” This is to slow the army’s advance. Within two or three days they’ll take up new positions and we’ll fight them,” he added.

The battleground that day was an insignificant hilltop in El Porvenir, a tiny hamlet in eastern Meta province. The firefight lasted close to an hour – another skirmish in a string of anonymous battles that, these days, rarely make the media headlines.

Another testimony, too, to the cat-and-mouse nature of this, Colombia’s almost five-decade-old conflict.

No surrender

On paper, government security forces currently appear to have the upper hand.

The lethal 2008 strike on Raul Reyes, a member of the FARC’s seven-man leadership council, was a warning of the devastating military air campaign ahead.

Months later, the army’s “Operation Checkmate” freed kidnapped former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 14 fellow hostages and was a severe blow to the FARC’s domestic and international political ambitions.

Then, when the air force – backed by army and police commandos – killed the FARC’s top field marshal Jorge Briceno, alias “Mono Jojoy”, in a “pinpoint attack” in September 2010, the government began to trumpet the end of the road for the rebel force. Officials estimate FARC membership has dropped from more than 20,000 fighters a decade ago to fewer than 7,000 now. The guerrillas themselves have not published their own figures.

In April, the head of the Colombian armed forces, Admiral Edgar Cely, said: “The FARC is in its death throes – although this perverse organisation refuses to believe that and fights using terrorism, explosives and minefields.”

Those military setbacks in the years following the collapse of peace talks in 2002 propelled the FARC back to the depths of the jungle, virtually beyond the reach of the media.

It was only after several weeks of driving an old Jeep through remote corners of eastern and southern Colombia, leaving notes in obscure farmhouses, that I was able to reestablish contact with the guerrillas.

When they responded it was with a rare invite to spend ten days marching alongside one of their so-called “mobile companies”, a unit whose main function is to fight.

Despite the string of recent defeats inflicted by the government, none of the 54 young men and women combatants of this FARC unit, the “Marquetalia Company”, were talking about surrender.

“Mono Jojoy dies and it’s like everybody is dead. Comrade Manuel Marulanda (a veteran FARC leader) dies and again it’s like everybody is dead. That’s what they think but it’s not true,” said “Jagwin”, commander of the newly reformed Marquetalia Company. At 35, he’s the oldest in the unit. He said he was the son of peasant farmers and joined rebel ranks some 20 years ago.

“We’re sad because Mono Jojoy was like a father to us. But it’s like what happens at home if your father dies, there’s always a brother who will replace him and run the farm,” he added.

Helicopter gunship

The conversation with “Jagwin” is cut short.

An Blackhawk helicopter gunship clatters overhead, searching for the rebel column that just attacked army troops in El Porvenir. As it whirls overhead it spits up to 4,000 rounds a minute into the jungle canopy from its six-barrel Gatling gun.

The rebels call this helicopter the “harpy”, a reference to the violent winged spirits of Greek mythology.

The Marquetalia Company pulls back with just one walking wounded.

Colombia’s war is not a war of positions. In hamlets like El Porvenir there is little to defend. Steep cattle pastures, a humble schoolhouse with broken-down desks and pockets of thick rainforest.

The retreat is laboured. After heavy tropical storms, mud is ankle deep. Fighters clamber up and down slippery hillsides carrying backpacks full of clothes, ammunition and food – weighing around 30kg.

Air strikes

Camp that night was a banana grove. Government aircraft constantly circled.

Guerrilla commanders ordered a total blackout and confiscated flashlights from fighters. All spoke in hushed voices.

As they listened to engines droning overhead they would whisper “the explorer”, reference to a reconnaissance plane, or “the pig”, a Vietnam-era AC-47 gunship bristling with weaponry and night vision equipment.

Their lives depend on spotting those aircraft in time and avoiding detection.

Under the tin roof of an abandoned peasant shack, Jagwin explained how he survived an aerial bombardment.

It was past midnight back in August 2009. He and his comrades heard the whine of a fleet of fighter-bombers approach and then their camp exploded in flashes of light and a storm of shrapnel. He saw the silhouettes of fellow fighters and heard their screams as they tried to flee.

“Our only option was to dive into the trenches. When the bombardment started we practically buried ourselves in those holes and when they started to strafe with gunfire and troops began disembarking then we ran to escape,” he said.

In that attack alone, he said, 33 of his fellow guerrillas were killed.

Willinton, deputy commander of the Marquetalia Company, has also felt the fury of air raids. He gave few details but confessed that he had no option but to leave dead and wounded behind – a taboo in any military force.

“It’s tough to have to flee the battlefield or escape a bombardment and leave wounded or dead companions behind. They were my comrades. It’s tough but it was an exceptional circumstance. Sometimes you just have to do what you can to escape,” he said.

For that reason, this night and every night, commanders briefed combatants – and me – about evacuation routes in case of bombardment. They instructed us on using shallow riverbeds and small foxholes dug alongside their sleeping quarters to shelter from a potential shower of shrapnel.

Long march

The following two days were a series of gruelling marches.

These combatants were mostly in their twenties, from poor backgrounds and very fit.

But rainy season had set in in Meta province and they advanced at little more than two kilometers an hour.

Nobody was much in the mood for talking en route, weary under backpacks, assault rifles and mortar tubes.

Their rubber boots squelched, half-filled with brackish river water, half-filled with sweat.

Vast tree roots formed natural staircases down muddy banks. Electric blue butterflies flit between the trees. Howler monkeys swung overhead and occasionally lobbed down branches.

With limited access to TV and radio and marching for days under a thick jungle canopy, it’s easy to lose track of time. Days become weeks and blend into years. The FARC’s revolution has become a war with no apparent end.

Beyond the confines of the rainforest, these young men and women would have been part of the Twitter generation. Yet most, like 21-year-old Eliana, had joined rebel ranks before they were 15 and were way too poor to afford a computer.

Eliana said she joined the FARC when she was just 13. She ran away from home after a fight with her mother and roamed the streets of an eastern Colombian town “getting into trouble”, as she described – without further elaboration.

She’s slim built and admitted she could “hardly carry the groceries home from the store” before becoming a guerrilla. Now she boasts she can march for days with a 30kg backpack and her AK-47 assault rifle. She’s also developed a love of gunfights.

“I know I wasn’t born to live forever. So when there’s a fight I move forward and blast away. That way my nerves disappear. I’m always careful though to save one or two magazines for the retreat in case there’s any trouble,” Eliana explained.

That bristling confidence evaporates into a girlish giggle when I ask her if she’s ever heard of Facebook or Twitter.

“I have no idea what Facebook is and I’ve never heard of Twitter,” she said.

Mines

One morning during a break in the march, company commander Jagwin explained the FARC has managed to keep arms supply routes open.

He was sporting a new assault rifle he said was a South Korean-made version of the US military’s M-16.

That, he said, had been smuggled into Colombia in oil barrels – the cost some 17 million pesos ($10,000).

The Russian-made PKM machine-gun used in the firefight at El Porvenir was also new.

And the previous afternoon, Jagwin had taken delivery of 100 rounds for a multiple grenade launcher. Price tag – 140,000 pesos ($83) each, he said.

All the ammunition appeared to be stamped with the brand and serial numbers of Indumil, the state-run munitions factory.

Getting hold of 81mm mortar bombs was proving a little more problematic, he confessed. A weapons smuggler was demanding 500,000 pesos ($295) each, he said.

As the latest rainstorm subsided, Jagwin issued orders to a four-man unit.

Scouts indicated the army was once again close by and he had decided to employ what is probably the most controversial weapon in the FARC’s armory – homemade landmines.

“We use these mines to slow the enemy advance. We place them in the path of the army. Once they’ve passed we go and collect them again,” Jagwin said.

Prior to the year 2000, all sides in Colombia’s conflict used anti-personnel mines.

Since the Colombian government ratified the Ottawa Convention to ban landmines in 2000, the main culprits have been the FARC.

Colombia’s legacy is bloody with one of the highest number of landmine victims after Afghanistan.

According to Colombian government figures, more than 7,000 people were mutilated by mines between 1990 and 2010 – and around 2,000 were killed. Of the total 9,000 victims, about two-thirds were military personnel and the remaining third were civilians.

A young fighter spread around 20 mines on the grass – each with a diameter of about eight centimeters, made from a short section of PVC piping and packed with explosives.

“Take the GPS and mark where you’re placing the mines. Give them each a name, for example, Flower One, Flower Two etc so you can find them again,” Willinton instructed as he helped prime the devices.

“We tell the peasants they should not move around after a certain time of day or in certain areas,” Jagwin said.

It’s a warning that is clearly far from effective. In the first two months of this year, 23 civilians fell victim to landmines.

Hearts and minds

The company’s destination was a wooden shack nestled in the jungle. Pasted on the wall was a hand-written poster with the words “Jorge Briceño Civic-Military Brigade”.

Guerrillas from a sister unit had set up a clinic to offer dental treatment and minor surgeries to peasant farmers and their families.

Plastic camouflage ponchos formed walls around the dental surgery. Another poncho marked the entrance to a side room where FARC medics set up, ready to operate using local anesthesia.

A civilian mother brought her three children along. Her previous attempt to get them treated by a civilian dentist in the town of La Julia, about three hours away, was a wasted journey.

“I took them to town but the nurse who pulls out teeth was not there that day so I had to bring them home,” said the woman. She, like others at the FARC clinic, said dental treatment in town is free but poor quality under a government-subsidised health scheme.

While rebel clinics like these may be a useful stopgap measure for poor peasants, they are unlikely to be a comprehensive long-term solution to the precarious health conditions of Colombia’s isolated rural communities.

Clearly this is a campaign by the FARC to win civilian “hearts and minds”.

“What we’re always looking to do is to win the support of the masses. Whoever wins the masses, wins the war. We also do this because we’re working for the people,” said Yesid, one of the rebel medics.

It’s a time-honoured tactic by any military force, especially those engaged in guerrilla warfare.

The clinic had already been operating for around an hour that day and a dozen civilians had gathered. Then news came that the army was approaching – treatment would have to be suspended immediately.

Art of war

The predicted clash with advancing army troops never took place. Guerrilla scouts had no clear idea of how many soldiers there were or their exact route.

Instead, the Marquetalia Company opted to move camp and outmanoeuvre its opponents.

“In a guerrilla war you choose where you will fight. We decide we can fight here or not, or decide to ambush them somewhere else,” said Jagwin, expounding one of the key tenets of the art of guerrilla war. It’s a sign this low-tempo conflict could drag on indefinitely, at least here in the countryside.

A day later the guerrilla clinic was back in business, several kilometers away.

By early morning there was already a list of 17 adults and children hoping for treatment.

There’s no electricity in this region. Only a lucky few have portable generators or a solar panel.

So seeing neighbours having teeth pulled or getting sliced open for minor surgeries proved to be as much an attraction as TV for patients and idle onlookers alike.

A little girl watched her neighbour, “Don Luis”, a peasant farmer, getting a hernia fixed.

Shafts of light streamed through the wood board walls. Medic Yesid and his three assistants worked under the light from battery-powered headlamps. The operating table was a wooden board partly propped up on a tree stump.

Once surgery started, the medics had no option except to continue – even if the army staged a surprise attack.

“If bombs start to fall or bullets start to fly we don’t have much choice. We have to finish the job because we can’t just leave the patient cut open on the operating table,” medic Yesid said.

In an adjacent room, dentist Marta pulled teeth and replaced fillings. She has been in the FARC for 19 years and, like many others here, said she had joined up when she was just a child.

“I only studied until third grade in primary school. My mum abandoned us when I was just six and she left us with an alcoholic uncle,” Marta explained.

“I used to sell ice-creams in the wholesale food market and scrounged for food for my brother. Then I went to work with my brother in Meta province on a farm – and that’s where I came into contact with the guerrillas,” she said.

Marta said she dreamed of becoming a dentist in civilian life when the conflict ended.

But she is adamant she will only lay down her weapon once the FARC takes power. That may seem like a hopeless illusion to the Colombian government and political analysts.

But Marta and her comrades cannot contemplate any other option.

“Some day this has to come to an end. Maybe I won’t see live to see that day but it will come,” she said. “I can’t believe my struggle has been in vain.”

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Al-Jazeera footage captures ‘western troops on the ground’ in Libya

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You can watch the footage by Al-Jazeera here, and pictures of the western special forces here.

By Julian Borger and Martin Chulov
May 30, 2011

Armed westerners have been filmed on the front line with rebels near Misrata in the first apparent confirmation that foreign special forces are playing an active role in the Libyan conflict.

A group of six westerners are clearly visible in a report by al-Jazeera from Dafniya, described as the westernmost point of the rebel lines west of the town of Misrata. Five of them were armed and wearing sand-coloured clothes, peaked caps, and cotton Arab scarves.

The sixth, apparently the most senior of the group, was carrying no visible weapon and wore a pink, short-sleeve shirt. He may be an intelligence officer. The group is seen talking to rebels and then quickly leaving on being spotted by the television crew.

The footage emerged as South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, arrived in Tripoli in an attempt to broker a ceasefire. He described reports that he would ask Muammar Gaddafi to step down as “misleading”, and said he would instead focus on humanitarian measures and ways to implement a plan concocted by the African Union for Libya make a transition to democratic rule but not seek Gaddafi’s exile.

The westerners were seen by al-Jazeera on rebel lines late last week, days before British and French attack helicopters are due to join the Nato campaign. They are likely to be deployed on the outskirts of Misrata, from where pro-Gaddafi forces continue to shell rebel positions to the east.

There have been numerous reports in the British press that SAS soldiers are acting as spotters in Libya to help Nato warplanes target pro-Gaddafi forces. In March, six special forces soldiers and two MI6 officers were detained by rebel fighters when they landed on an abortive mission to meet rebel leaders in Benghazi, in an embarrassing episode for the SAS.

The group was withdrawn soon afterwards and a new “liaison team” sent in its place. Asked for comment on Monday, a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said: “We don’t have any forces out there.”

The subject is sensitive as the UN security council resolution in March authorising the use of force in Libya specifically excludes “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”.

Despite more than two months of bombing by Nato, rebels have remained unable to advance west of Misrata, or west of Brega, 300 miles to the east. The capital, Tripoli, also remains in the grip of Gaddafi, who has defied all attempts to force him to leave.

However, a fresh blow to his position came yesterday as eight Libyan army officers appeared in Rome, saying they were part of a group of as many as 120 military officials and soldiers who had defected from Gaddafi’s side in recent days.

The eight officers – five generals, two colonels and a major – spoke at a news conference organised by the Italian government. The officers said they had defected in protest at Gaddafi’s actions against his own people, citing killings of civilians and violence against women. They claimed that Gaddafi’s campaign against the rebels was rapidly weakening.

Air force pilots landed in Italy and defected earlier in the rebellion. Under-trained and under-manned rebel forces have been encouraging defections as a way to whittle away support for Gaddafi in the absence of a ground army sent to assist them.

The latest group are reported to have been spurred largely by tensions arising from the appointment newcomers to senior positions in the security services.

The behaviour of these men, many of them relatively youthful Gaddafi loyalists in their mid-30s, are throught to have stirred anger and dismay among the army’s officer ranks.

In April, William Hague announced that an expanded military liaison team would be dispatched to work with the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council, which is positioning itself as a democratic alternative to Gaddafi’s rule.

The foreign secretary said the team would help the rebels improve “organisational structures, communications and logistics” but stressed: “Our officers will not be involved in training or arming the opposition’s fighting forces, nor will they be involved in the planning or execution of the [transitional council’s] military operations or in the provision of any other form of operational military advice.”

There were unconfirmed reports at the time that Britain was planning to send former SAS members and other experienced soldiers to Libya under the cover of private security companies, paid for by Arab states, to train the anti-government forces.

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Cde. Keith Bennett on Syria

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In the following video, Comrade Keith Bennett of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) addresses the may meeting of the Stalin Society. He outlines the imperialist campaign of destabilization facing the Syrian government, the fundamentally progressive nature of the Syrian government, as well as the problems that US/UK sponsored ‘opposition’ forces seek to exploit with MI6 and CIA help to foment regime change.

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Soldiers speak out on Memorial Day: ‘Remember Sgt. Kirkland! No more deaths from Wall Street’s wars!’

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May 30, 2011

The following is a statement from veterans and active-duty troops in the organization March Forward!, an affiliate of the ANSWER Coalition.

On Memorial Day, we are asked to remember those who have died in Washington’s wars. Of course, we’re only asked to remember the lives of U.S. troops; the lives of civilians killed in the current wars are supposed to not exist. As veterans, we know the human toll all too well, and cannot forget the more than one million innocent Iraqis, and the tens of thousands of Afghans, including an entire home just obliterated yesterday by NATO that killed ten children–cut from life before it had even begun.

In the United States, there are many families who will be mourning a loved one this Memorial Day: over 6,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past ten years. That number is climbing by the day as casualties hit record numbers in the hopeless Afghanistan war, and troops continue to be killed in the “ended” Iraq war.

Donate today to March Forward! Support a movement of anti-war veterans and service members.

But what this government doesn’t want us to remember is the record number of troops who have lost their lives to suicide. They, too, are victims of the U.S. military’s wars. Over the past two years, more active-duty troops have killed themselves than have been killed in combat. Outside the military, veterans commit suicide at a rate of 18 per day.

This epidemic is the result of criminally negligent mental health care from the U.S. military and Veterans Affairs—but no matter how much the mental health care system is improved, it doesn’t stop the constant flow of thousands of young people who are sent to be traumatized in the first place in two imperial wars. A recent study found that now 80 percent of soldiers and Marines have witnessed a friend killed or wounded in combat. Morale is down the drain.

Under these conditions, the wave of suicides can only get worse.

Active-duty troops are standing up and fighting back. This Memorial Day, let’s remember those killed by the U.S. government’s actions, and honor those who are memorializing a fellow soldier by speaking out and fighting to punish those responsible for his death.

Sgt. Derrick Kirkland, from 4-9 Infantry at Fort Lewis, Wash., deployed to Iraq twice. He was rated a “low risk” for suicide after three consecutive suicide attempts, was publicly ridiculed for seeking help by his superiors, then placed in a barracks room alone in violation of Army regulations. Days later he killed himself, on March 19, 2010.

Kirkland’s mother, Mary Corkhill, told March Forward!: “the Army has massively failed him … I am very angry at the Army and I feel they killed my son.”

Click here to read the powerful interview with Sgt. Kirkland’s mother.

March Forward! members in 4-9 Infantry immediately sprung into action upon his death to expose those responsible. They have been heroically organizing and speaking out. They are still working today to expose Sgt. Kirkland’s case and the criminal treatment given to all troops, and to organize against the wars.

You can help their voices be heard by signing their petition and circulating their statements widely.

Click here to sign the petition demanding justice for Sgt. Kirkland.

Help build the campaign to win justice for Sgt. Kirkland, to hold the government accountable for their mistreatment of traumatised soldiers, and to end the wars!

For more on the Kirkland campaign:

Click to read the original statement March Forward! members circulated in the baracks after Kirkland’s death.

Click to read a speech given on the anniversary of Kirkland’s death.

Click to read the interview with Kirkland’s mother.

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U.S. Attorney General Holder challenged on FBI repression

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By Staff | May 28, 2011

Anti-war, international solidarity activists interrupt his speech in Minneapolis

Protesters at Eric Holder visit to Minneapolis (Fight Back! News/Kim DeFranco)

Minneapolis, MN – U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder got a cold reception in Minneapolis May 27, where the Committee to Stop FBI Repression dogged him all day about FBI and grand jury attacks on anti-war and international solidarity activists. 100 people gathered outside his event at the University of Minnesota. The shouts of protesters outside could be heard inside, “Hey Holder, hear our fury! Stop the FBI, end the grand jury!”

In September of 2010, 14 peace and international solidarity activists in the Midwest, including Minneapolis, were subpoenaed to testify at a secret grand jury investigating material support for terrorism. In December, nine more activists were subpoenaed. The 23 activists have declared their refusal to testify and have declared their First Amendment right to protest, to free speech and to assemble. Last week, the FBI stepped up its repression when it participated in a raid on the home of Los Angeles immigrant rights activist, Carlos Montes.

As Holder began to speak at the University of Minnesota event, several people stood up to interrupt him with questions demanding that he explain his why his Department of Justice is pursuing activists.

The first to challenge him was Tracy Molm, one of the targeted activists and a member of Students for a Democratic Society. Holder talked with her after his speech, saying they would have to “agree to disagree” on whether international solidarity activism like hers is constitutionally protected.

Afterwards, Molm told the protesters gathered outside, “He can disagree all he wants, but people around the country believe these attacks need to end because they’re killing our free speech rights, our ability to question our government and our ability to speak out.”

All those who interrupted his speech were ejected by University police, but none were arrested.

Speaking for the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, Deb Konechne said, “It is disgusting that Eric Holder, who once defended Chiquita Banana’s payments to right-wing death squads and Colombia’s AUC – a designated ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’ – is today the head of a grand jury fishing expedition against anti-war and international solidarity activists. This fishing expedition is, according to secret FBI documents released last week, predicated on the work of activists in the U.S. to publicize and advocate on behalf of Colombian trade unionists that have been AUC targets.”

Protesters also gathered outside a second speech by the attorney general at Augsburg College, but were barred from entering. When Holder exited the event, protesters sent him packing with these final words, “Hey Holder, you crossed the line. Political dissent is not a crime!”

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Venezuela Rejects US Sanctions, Evaluates Oil Supply to US

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By EVA GOLINGER – CORREO DEL ORINOCO INTERNATIONAL

Venezuelan workers of the state-owned oil company PDVSA denounce US sanctions against their firm (Photo: Archive).

Venezuela’s government strongly rejected the Obama administration’s attempt to sanction its state-owned oil industry, PDVSA, and interrupt its relations with other nations. Latin American nations and groups worldwide have expressed support for Venezuela’s defiant stance.

“Sanctions against the homeland of Bolivar? Imposed by the US imperialist government”, declared Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Twitter this Tuesday (@chavezcandanga), “Bring it on, Mr. Obama. Do not forget that we are the children of Bolivar”, he exclaimed, reminding his more than one and a half million followers on the social network that “the true impact of this latest US aggression is the strengthening of our nationalistic and patriotic morale in Venezuela!”

On Tuesday morning, the US State Department, announced it was imposing unilateral sanctions against seven international companies, including Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA). This decision marks the first time the US government has taken direct hostile action against the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, which is one of the largest oil companies in the world.

According to State Department releases, the sanctions fall under the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) of 1996, as amended by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010, for alleged “activities in support of Iran’s energy sector”. In the case of Venezuela, the State Department claims PDVSA “violated” the US legislation by “selling at least two cargoes of reformate to Iran between December 2010 and March 2011”. Reformate is a blending component that improves the quality of gasoline, which somehow, the US government alleges, can help enable Iran to make nuclear bombs.

The State Department clarified that in the case of PDVSA, the sanctions “prohibit the company from competing for US government procurement contracts, from securing financing from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, and from obtaining US export licenses”. The US sanctions do not affect Venezuela’s supply of oil to the United States, as clearly the Obama administration would not want to directly affect its own interests. Nor do the sanctions apply to PDVSA subsidiaries, such as CITGO, a US corporation owned by PDVSA which has seven oil refineries and over 10,000 gas stations throughout the United States.

BRING IT ON

The Venezuelan government reacted firmly to the unilaterally imposed sanctions, clearly stating it will no adhere to any decision made by the US government regarding its oil business, nor will it accept any US interference in its relations with other nations. During a joint press conference late Tuesday afternoon, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, Nicolas Maduro, and PDVSA President and Oil Minister, Rafael Ramirez, labeled the US sanctions as a “hostile act of aggression” against the South American nation. They also announced that Venezuela is “thoroughly evaluating its response” and whether the US decision will “affect the supply of 1.2 million barrels of oil daily to the US”.

On Wednesday, thousands of workers at PDVSA’s installations throughout Venezuela protested the US sanctions and stated they would “defend their oil sovereignty” in the face of “US aggression and interference”. “PDVSA is a sovereign, dignified company that no longer bows down to US agenda”, workers declared, rallying at the company’s headquarters in Caracas.

President Chavez, who is recovering from a knee injury and has been forced to limit his public appearances, tweeted throughout the day. “We don’t just have the largest oil reserves in the world. We also have the most revolutionary oil company in the world!”

In another tweet, he exclaimed, “So, they wanted to see and feel the flame of the people of Bolivar defending the independence of the Venezuelan homeland? Well, there you have it!”

Venezuela’s legislative body also issued a firm declaration on Tuesday rejecting the US-imposed sanctions and warning the US to cease the hostilities against the South American country or Venezuela could stop its oil supply northward. The 40% opposition, anti-Chavez coalition in the Venezuelan parliament refused to adhere to the declaration, instead expressing approval for the US sanctions. Many Venezuelans saw this as a posture betraying their own sovereignty and national security.

INCREASING AGGRESSION

The US government, which supported a briefly successful coup d’etat against President Chavez in 2002 and has since been heavily funding anti-Chavez groups with millions of dollars in order to build an opposition movement in Venezuela, has been increasing its aggressive policies towards the Chavez administration during the past few years. In 2006, the State Department imposed its first sanction against Venezuela for allegedly “not fully cooperating with the war on terrorism”, and prohibited the sale of military equipment to the South American country from the US or any company in the world that uses US technology. In a clear attempt to leave Venezuela defenseless, this sanction has been renewed each year to the present date, though the Chavez government has found other suppliers of defense materials not subject to US pressures, such as Russia and China.

In 2008, the Bush administration evaluated placing Venezuela on its unilateral “state sponsors of terrorism” list, but concluded it wasn’t possible, due to US dependence on Venezuelan oil. This year, calls from ultra-conservative members of Congress, including Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack, both Florida Republicans who run the House Foreign Relations Committee, have vowed to take “direct actions against Hugo Chavez”. These latest sanctions are a clear result of their pressure, and that of the still influential anti-Castro Cuban-American lobby, on the Obama administration.

In addition to the multi-million dollar US funding of anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela, which feeds an ongoing internal conflict and climate of destabilization, the US government has also been waging a severe demonization campaign against the Chavez government in international media. In 2010, the US Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI), labeled President Chavez as the regional “Anti-US Leader” in its annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment Report”. The Venezuelan President is also regularly referred to as authoritarian, dictatorial and anti-democratic in US media, despite his overwhelming victories in several elections and his oversight of Venezuela’s most vibrant democratic process in history.

Ros-Lehtinen and Mack have again requested the White House place Venezuela on the list of state sponsors of terrorism this year. Though this is a far-fetched objective, this week’s sanctions pave the road towards an even more aggressive policy towards Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest oil reserves.

Chavez faces reelection in 2012, and opposition candidates are bickering over who could unify their parties to challenge the overly-popular head of state. So far, Washington’s hostility is not aiding the opposition, but is actually unifying Venezuelans against foreign interference. Some fear the Obama administration could attempt a “Libya-esque” plan against Venezuela: demonizing the President, funding and supporting the opposition, building up military presence in the region and sanctioning the government, all with the goal of provoking regime change “by any means”.

Meanwhile, Venezuelans stand strong against US efforts to undermine their democratic process.

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Triumphal return of Honduran ex-leader Zelaya

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May 28, 2011

Manuel Zelaya speaks upon his arrival in Tegucigalpa (AFP, Rodrigo Arangua)

TEGUCIGALPA — Former president Manuel Zelaya made a triumphal return to Honduras Saturday as tens of thousands of people cheered and waved banners to welcome him home nearly two years after his ouster from power in a coup.

Zelaya, wearing his trademark white cowboy hat, landed in Tegucigalpa with his wife and aides aboard a Venezuelan plane on a flight from Managua, and immediately went to a nearby plaza to rally his supporters.

“We arrive full of optimism and hope to search for an exit to this crisis. At one moment we had almost lost it all, but they never defeated us,” he told his supporters.

Supporters of Manuel Zelaya (C,R, with hat) surround him upon his arrival (AFP, Rodrigo Arangua)

Zelaya, 58, thanked his supporters and paid homage to those “who spilled their blood in this plaza,” including an 18 year-old shot dead during a protest a week after the coup.

“Their blood was not spilled in vain because we are here still engaged in the struggle,” he told the enthusiastic crowd.

Several people fainted in the heat waiting for the former president, who was several hours behind schedule.

The end of the former cattle rancher’s 16-month exile was part of a deal brokered by several Latin American governments that will end Honduras diplomatic isolation and give the government of President Porfirio Lobo access to foreign investment and aid.

Manuel Zelaya celebrates upon his arrival in Tegucigalpa (AFP, Orlando Sierra)

The ousted former president is returning to lead the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), a movement formed after the June 2009 coup to challenge a two party system that has dominated Honduran politics since the early 20th century.

“He was the only president that remembered us, the poor,” said Maria Elisa Ferrufino, a 75 year-old farmer who got up at dawn Friday to catch a bus to Tegucigalpa for the rally.

Zelaya “helped the poor people — no president had done that before,” said Arnulfo Mendez, 62, who traveled from a town 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the capital for the rally. “There is hope that with his leadership we can do something with the Resistance Front.”

Zelaya’s return will allow Honduras to rejoin the Organization of American States (OAS) and gain access to international aid, vital in a country where 70 percent of a population of nearly eight million live on four dollars or less a day.

The deal included a promise that all legal action against Zelaya would be dropped.

The ex-president arrived in the Nicaraguan capital on Friday from the Dominican Republic, where he had spent most of his time in exile.

Lobo and Zelaya signed a reconciliation agreement in Colombia last week, and the two will meet at the presidential palace along with the head of the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza, and Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin.

Zelaya was a conservative rancher when he was elected in January 2006, but took a political turn to the left once in office.

He was ousted in a military coup sanctioned by the Honduran legislature and the supreme court after calling for a referendum to rewrite the constitution. His opponents feared he would use it to extend his term in office as his ally Hugo Chavez had done in Venezuela.

Zelaya secretly returned to Honduras before the de facto regime could hold elections, holing up at the Brazilian embassy surrounded by regime police in an impasse that lasted four months.

Meanwhile, the interim regime that ousted Zelaya held elections and Lobo took office in January 2010.

Despite his broad popular support Zelaya cannot run in the 2013 presidential elections because the constitution limits presidents to a single term in office. Supporters want his wife to run instead.

In an interview just before departing Managua broadcast on Telesur television network, Zelaya said his return from exile was “the result of an effort of all the countries of Latin America.”

“Today we begin the true reconciliation in Honduras,” Zelaya’s wife Xiomara Castro said, adding that they were committed “to continue the struggle to transform” the country.

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CPC embarks on new path of social management

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May 29, 2011

In a small village tucked into the rugged mountains in east China’s Jiangxi Province, every household has a board indicating a person’s name, workplace and mobile phone number on the door.

“He is my go-to guy,” said 58-year-old Liu Guoyou, a farmer in Shangduan Village, Huangbai Township in the city of Ruijin, referring to Zhong Chunlin, head of the municipal Bureau for Letters and Calls.

“I often forget things at my age. But I can always know Zhong’s number since it is right there, atop my door. Whenever I encounter difficulty in life and don’t know what to do, I call him,” said Liu.

“Now half a year has passed, and he has already become family,” Liu said.

Liu’s attitude is not an isolated case. Actually, every government official in Ruijin has become the go-to guy for 20 households, said Chen Xiaochun, secretary of the Ruijin municipal committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Chen, himself, often replied as late as midnight with text messages to local farmers. “Besides the 20 households that I am responsible for, I also make my mobile phone number available to the public,” said Chen.

“I take problems and difficulties that people mentioned in their texts seriously. For some problems, I solve them myself, and for others, I forward the issues to the department in charge,” Chen said.

Ruijin is the birthplace of the Provisional Central Government of Chinese Soviet Republic in 1931, and it is also the starting point of the Long March, a famous military maneuver carried out by the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army from 1934 to 1935 led by the Communist Party of China to combat the Kuomintang regime.

Today, Ruijin is a popular tourist destination for both its natural scenery and its “Red” heritage.

Ballads depicting diligent, selfless CPC cadres is still popular today. It tells the story of CPC officials who went to work wearing a pair of straw sandals and bringing their own food, and even when they finished with their daily work, they carried a lantern to pay household visits to solve people’s difficulties.

“The CPC was set up with the aim of serving the people. Today, it is important for us to use new tools, such as the Internet, cell phones and video chats, to hear the voices of the people and help them realize their aspirations,” said Chen.

Great changes have taken place in the country since the founding of New China more than 60 years ago. For example, the country has come a long way to become the second largest economy in the world. The distribution system has changed from the “eating from the same pot” to “distribution based on one’s work”. However, it also faces problems like the uneven development between regions, yawning wealth gap, social services being lagged behind, as well as contradictions relating to labor and debt disputes.

The biggest challenge at present is that whether the CPC can strengthen its blood ties with the people, under the backdrop of fast social progress and great changes in the country, said Dai Yanjun with the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

The 12th Five-Year Program, the national development blueprint for the years from 2011 to 2015, states that China will beef up the government’s role in social management and providing social services and optimize the mechanism of safeguarding people’s rights and interests to ensure the harmony and stability of society.

Progress has been made. In east China’s metropolis Shanghai, subsidized delivery rooms are provided to migrant workers and the municipal government provides 200 yuan (31 U.S. dollars) in subsidies to the hospitals for each new mother.

As for the lingering “Hukou system”, the household registration system that classifies people as “urban” or “rural” residents, Dongguan city government in south China’s Guangdong Province provides new channels for people to be registered as a resident there as long as they meet certain criteria, such as having worked in Dongguan for a certain number of years and having paid their social security.

In the year 2010, as many as 10,000 migrant workers became Dongguan citizens.

In southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality, public opinions have been incorporated into government officials’ performance evaluations since 2008. The public opinion poll conducted by independent pollsters take up one-fifth of an official’s performance results, said Li Mingqing, deputy head of the Organization Department of the Chongqing Municipal Committee of the CPC.

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NATO Destroys Guard Towers at Gaddaffi’s Compound

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Tripoli, May 29 (Prensa Latina) North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aircraft destroyed guard towers at Muammar Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli during a series of air strikes on the Libyan capital, reported official sources. Libya’s state-run television confirmed that the NATO warplanes have been constantly attacking for the last five days different points of Tripoli City.

Al Jamahiriya television channel quoted a Libyan military source as saying that the guard towers in the walls of the Bab al-Aziziyah complex, where El Gaddaffi lives in the centre of Tripoli, were brought down by NATO precision-guided weapons.

Tripoli residents said that the Sunday bombardments also damaged civilian facilities near the Bab Al-Aziziyah complex.

NATO followed its fifth straight night of attacks with a daytime strike, the first one since March 19, sending smoke skywards from the area of the Gaddafi compound.

Following the Friday night strikes, the Libyan state broadcaster said NATO raids also caused “human and material” damage.

Meanwhile, the Libyan Foreign ministry complained to Russia about the statements made by President Dmitry Medvedev during the G-8 Meeting in Deauville, France, urging Gaddafi to step down and offering to mediate his departure.

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Turning Together: the Coexistence of both Nuclear and Renewable Energy

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By George Monbiot
May 27, 2011

I know that others don’t share my puzzlement, but I don’t understand why the nuclear question needs to divide the environment movement. Our underlying aim is the same: we all want to reduce human impacts on the biosphere. We all agree that our consumption of resources must be reduced, as sharply as possible. We all question the model of endless economic growth.

Almost everyone in this movement also recognises that – even with the maximum possible conservation of resources and efficiency in the way they are used – we will not be able to bring our consumption down to zero. This is especially the case with electricity. Those who have been following the issue closely know that even with massive reductions in energy demand, electricity use will have to rise, in order to remove fossil fuels from both transport and heating.

The idea, on which there’s also wide agreement within this movement, is that the petrol and diesel used to power cars, buses and trains and the gas and oil used to heat our houses should be partly or mostly replaced by low-carbon electricity. That means an increase in electricity supply, even as, with sweeping efficiency measures in all sectors, our total energy consumption falls.

So the only question which divides us is how this low-carbon electricity should be produced. I don’t much care about which technology is used, as long as the other impacts are as small as possible, and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced quickly and efficiently. None of our options is easy and painless.

Windfarms are now running into massive public opposition, not least because of the new power lines required to connect them to the grid. The costs of other kinds of renewables are high, and their potential to supply much of our electricity is low.

The capture and storage of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels has yet to be demonstrated at the scale required to show that it’s a viable option. It is also expensive, and still involves mining coal and drilling for gas. That means continued environmental impacts, which are likely to escalate as shale gas is extracted and coal is increasingly mined through open-casting.

Nuclear power remains an object of deep public suspicion. The advantage it has over renewables is that production takes place on a compact site, rather than being spread over the countryside, and that new power lines are not required in places where they haven’t been built before. The disadvantage it shares with coal and gas is that it depends upon the extraction of uranium, which, like mining fossil fuels, imposes a high environmental cost. In principle this could be overcome by moving to fourth generation nuclear technologies. Not only do they not require fresh supplies of uranium, but some of the proposed technologies consume existing nuclear waste. None of them has yet been demonstrated at scale however.

The large-scale deployment of any of these options – renewables, carbon capture and storage or nuclear – will take between ten and twenty years.

These are hard physical and political constraints. There is no point in tearing each other apart over issues we can do little about. We can agree to disagree over what the mix should be, and we can keep debating all the issues it involves, hopefully in a friendly manner. The likelihood is that, because of the problems faced by all three technologies, we’ll probably need some of each. But is this possible?

According to Jonathon Porritt, it isn’t. In a recent blog post discussing renewables and nuclear power, he asserts that

“It’s becoming clearer and clearer that we’re now into a strict fight in terms of those two options. The days when people talked about “co-existence” are long gone; this is now either/or, not both/and.”

That statement would require an explanation at any time, and unfortunately Jonathon doesn’t provide one. But coming just after the Committee on Climate Change published its Renewable Energy Review, it needs even more unpacking.

The committee is the body that recommends the government’s carbon targets, and offers advice on how they might best be met. Of all the agencies involved in these questions, it has the most influence over government policy, as we saw during the bust-up within the Cabinet this month over whether or not its target should be adopted (the committee won after Cameron intervened). What the committee recommends is what is most likely to happen. In its latest report, published earlier this month, it advises that:

“The optimal policy is to pursue a portfolio approach, with each of the different technologies playing a role.”

It suggests the following, illustrative scenario for decarbonising electricity by 2030:

40% renewables

40% nuclear

15% carbon capture and storage

Up to 10% gas without carbon capture and storage

It raised no difficulties about co-existence between nuclear and renewables. And why should there be? Why can’t nuclear provide the baseload power, and renewables and carbon capture and storage most of the rest? Why can’t it be both/and, rather than either/or?

Here are some of the other things the report said:

“Nuclear power currently appears to be the most cost-effective of the low-carbon technologies”.

This will come as a surprise to many greens. Applying a 10% discount rate, the committee suggests that by 2030 nuclear power will cost between 5 and 10 pence per kilowatt hour. I rang the committee to check: yes, this does take into account the costs of decommissioning and waste disposal.

Onshore wind will cost between 7 and 8.5 pence, and the other renewables are more expensive, in some cases much more expensive. The Severn Barrage, which Jonathon favours, comes out worst of all, at a staggering 21-31p.

If you apply a 7.5% discount rate, nuclear does even better against renewables (because of the higher up-front capital costs).

It also says that

“Although there is a finite supply of uranium available, this will not be a limiting factor for investment in nuclear capacity for the next 50 years.”

And it reminds us that France added 48GW of nuclear capacity – equivalent to more than half of our entire electricity system – in just ten years.

So my questions to Jonathon are as follows:

What has the Committee on Climate Change got wrong?

Could you explain your contention that nuclear power and renewables can’t co-exist?

Do you believe that renewables are a better option than nuclear power in all circumstances? Or would you agree that beyond a certain level of difficulty, of cost, of visual intrusion and other environmental impacts (damming estuaries and rivers, building power lines across rare and beautiful landscapes for example), nuclear becomes a more attractive option?

If you are to exclude nuclear entirely, what should the mix of electricity generation in this country be?

I would like to hear his answers to these questions. In the spirit of both debate and reconciliation, I’ve secured space for him to reply on the Guardian’s website. Over to you Jonathon.

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