Between January and April 2021, Science for the People co-organized a reading group along with DSA Ecosocialists and The Dig podcast of Thea Riofranco’s “Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador,” a thoughtful and generous analysis of the history and politics of ongoing dynamic debates within the diverse Ecuadorian lefts. If you would like to organize future reading groups with Science for the People, please contact us at sftp.revitalization[at]gmail.
Below we have done our best to summarize some of the take-aways of the reading group experience in three sections:
1. Guiding/Discussion questions
2. Reading group reflections
3. Supplemental reading and materials
Session 1: Introduction + Chapter 1 (From Neoliberalismo to Extractivismo)
How did anti-extractivism emerge as a political demand to organize around under a Left government in power?
What are the central tensions between the left in power and the left on the streets? Do these tensions still play out in current day Americas (both North and South)? If yes, how so?
What is the “extractive model” and what are its trappings for an ascendent Leftist movement? What have been its concrete achievements? What were the alternative means proposed for similar objectives by the anti-extractivist left?
Was resource nationalism a definitive break from neoliberalism? Discuss your arguments (for/against) within the context of global capital.
Session 2: Chapter 2 (Extractivismo as Grand Narrative of Resistance)
How does extractivismo as an organizing principle differ from the mainstream environmental movement in the Global North? Are there any similar principles in the Global North? If not, how can organizers/activists raise such a consciousness?
Discuss the technocratic framing of a neoliberal state as “weak” and “inefficient” as compared to a socialist “regulatory” state – how does this framing compare with the conception of an anti-capitalist state? How does this framing compare with actually existing socialist states such as Cuba and the USSR?
What functions did bureaucrats like Maria Belen serve in the Correa administration? How did their roles influence the tensions between the anti-extractivist activists and the Correa govt?
How does the dichotomy of anti-extractivism vs resource nationalism play out in terms of anti-imperialist politics?
Session 3: Chapter 3 (Consulta Previa)
Where did Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution originate from and how did it shape the coming battles between anti-extractive activists and the government
What lessons can be learned from Ecuadorean activists practicing constituent politics and how can they be applied to local environmental fights in the Global North, especially the US and/or Canada?
In Abel Arpi’s formulation of state ownership of non-renewable resources and anti-extractivism, is there room for developmentalism? Discuss Arpi’s proposal as a path towards wielding state power for socialist goals.
Are there parallels to the use of 1040 Decree by government bureaucrats, such as in the Mirador project, to the use of information by US governments when justifying extractive operations?
Session 4: Chapter 4 (The Demos in Dispute)
How did the question around the Quimsacocha gold mine bring up the question of who “the people” are? How did the idea of “the people” differ in the communities compared to that held by state functionaries?
What role did plurinationality, as incorporated in the 2008 constitution, play in shaping the exercise of constituent power by UNAGUA members?
What risks underlie the use of democratic exercises as resistance?
In a socialist state, can a national interest ever be fully aligned with local interests?
Session 5: Chapter 5 (Governing the Future)
Does the dichotomy of Left-in-Power vs the Left-in-Resistance serve a useful lens to view future socialist politics? Discuss why or why not.
How can questions of national sovereignty be resolved in a plurinational state?
Within radical resource nationalism, is there room for internationalist solidarity?
Given the short window of time to enact meaningful changes to combat the climate crisis, which is planetary in nature, how can the Left-in-Power vs the Left-in-Resistance dialectic be resolved?
Session 6: Chapter 6 (Conclusion)
Does the dichotomy of Left-in-Power vs the Left-in-Resistance serve a useful lens to view future socialist politics? Discuss why or why not.
How can questions of national sovereignty be resolved in a plurinational state?
Within radical resource nationalism, is there room for internationalist solidarity?
Given the short window of time to enact meaningful changes to combat the climate crisis, which is planetary in nature, how can the Left-in-Power vs the Left-in-Resistance dialectic be resolved?
The following are a list of webinars and readings to complement the discussion of “The Science We Have and The Science We Need: Internationalism in the Pandemic,” our own webinar, co-hosted by Ciencia para el Pueblo.
On Thursday, May 21st, we will be co-hosting a webinar on internationalism in the pandemic with our compañerxs from Ciencia para el Pueblo. Far from a secondary issue, internationalism is the reason Science for the People was born. Back then, scientists organized against the use of their labor for oppressive ends during the Vietnam War.
Today, Covid19 is magnifiying structural violences and inequalities across borders. It is urgent that we reflect on radical science history, international struggle, and avenues for solidarity. “The Science We Have + The Science We Need: Internationalism in the Pandemic” aims to do just that.
The webinar will be covering the following three issues:
(1) The Science We Have: an analysis of the dominant structures, institutions, and paradigms that contribute to austerity and the misuse of science for oppressive ends, and how the resulting power dynamics limit a humane and transformative response to the ongoing crisis in the context of Covid19.
(2) The Science We Need: rooted in the specificities of regional contexts, possible avenues towards the transformation of “science as a whole” in the interests of justice and human need. How might have a transformed terrain of science rooted in justice have responded to a pandemic like Covid19?
(3) On-the-Ground Organizing: How do we transition from the science we have to the one we need? What can we learn from historic and ongoing struggles in the sciences and across borders? What is the role of knowledge production, application, and distribution in this process? Prior to and during Covid19, what on-the-ground political activities were and are taking place across local and regional contexts?
The webinar will be livestreamed on: Zoom, Youtube, and Facebook
NNIMMO BASSEY is the director of the Nigeria-based ecological think-tank, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) and member steering committee of Oilwatch International. He was a co-recipient of the 2010 Right Livelihood Award also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” His books include To Cook a Continent – Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa and Oil Politics – Echoes of Ecological War.
DR. LUIS ALBERTO MONTERO CABRERA is a professor in the Department of Chemistry, chairing the branch of Natural Sciences at the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. He also chairs the Scientific Council of the University of Havana.
SHANTY ACOSTA SINENCIO is an independent biologist and chemist from the Faculty of Science at UNAM, Mexico, and a member of Ciencia para el Pueblo- Mexico.
ZHUN XU is an assistant professor at the Department of Economics at Howard University, having previously taught at Renmin University in Beijing. His research areas include Political Economy (health, food and development in general), Chinese Economy, and Economic History. He is the author of From Commune to Capitalism: How China’s Peasants Lost Collective Farming and Gained Urban Poverty.
DR. SIGRID SCHMALZER is a professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with a Ph.D. in Modern Chinese History and Science Studies from UC San Diego. She is a co-founder of the revitalized Science for the People and the co-editor of Science for the People: Documents from America’s Movement of Radical Scientists.
SAMAN SEPEHRI is an analytical chemist at Northwestern University and a long-time activist of Iranian descent. He has written on Middle East politics, the internal dynamic of Iran, and questions of world energy and the geopolitics of oil. He is currently a member of Chicago DSA.
LAURA PEÑARANDA (Moderator) is a Colombian labor organizer with Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED). She is a member of the International Committee of DSA, Science for the People, and Colombia Humana.
Science Education and the pandemic of human/sciences
From an Indian Researcher trying to make sense of Science and Society
Original screenplay and Illustrations by the author
Departing spring. Light, unsettling breeze of the cruelest April bellows the curtains. It is some hour late in the afternoon. A room in an unnamed urban metropolis of India.
Unsettling it is too for the ‘image’ of India, which has been undergoing debilitating body blows in recent times. A pandemic scare, yes (with its effects to be felt more in the socioeconomic realm rather than perhaps medical) but not just that. The country’s Muslim communities, its largest religious minority population, are faced with the possibility of mass disenfranchisement and en masse lockup in detention centers. The national capital and a global cosmopolitan centre — New Delhi — saw in February one of the most brutal Muslim genocides the country has ever seen. It was designed to act as a crackdown on the ongoing Occupy Movement in the country against the National Register of Citizens and the mass disenfranchisement it promises. The threats of losing citizenship are so real that several protest sites initially refused to discontinue their protests even under the threat of pandemic, but gave in to brute force of police and state and an imposition of public medico-morality. Politico-religious leaders who have been consistently describing Muslims in the country as ‘virus’ and ‘termites’, are now to negotiate with a microorganism, against whom vilification does not work. Though they are trying desperately for a convergence. The rulers who claimed that border fences and armed forces will ‘protect’ their nations from ‘outsiders’ are now doubling down on their racist monologues in a desperate attempt to hide their incapability of dealing with an actual crisis like this. A nation state which prepared itself with elaborate arrangements to lock down its religious minority population inside detention centers, suddenly finds itself having to lock itself down. It is a cruel season, and a crueler irony.
But this play cannot possibly travel to the nooks and corners of the disheveled nation. Not just any nook or corner, it can not even visit the burnt mosques in the capital city itself, or such multiple minor inconveniences. Surely there are troubles in our modern societies and we are not allowed to digress. Else we won’t be doing science. Stick we must, to objectivity and hard-lipped lack of ‘sentiments’. The play chooses, instead, to show the mundane normal. Something which is without the vile, crass and paranoia. A stage is thus constructed. Beyond it lies troubled times which it will allude to, but not show. We close down on specifics.
This is the makeshift working space of the middle-aged man we find, who seemed to be dozing in his daydreams. Stacked on various pieces of furniture around him are students’ notebooks and unchecked examination scripts – there are heaps of them. There are teaching materials, charts showing the parts of the human digestive system and types of ores on earth; diagrams of molecules and the oscillating pendulum, students’ paper models of various forms and types. Curricular textbooks, exam guides and assessment worksheets strewn haywire. He is in the middle of preparations for an online lockdown class for the following day, for his high school Science students. Clearly, he is waddling in a sea of pedagogic burden.
His face reads as if bemused, his body wrought with inaction at the desk. His eyes are shut tight.
A stagnant silence pervades.
VOICE.[at a distance, from a yet-to-be visible form] Hey there, working from the confines of home—cozy, isn’t it?
MAN.[undisturbed, faintly murmurs] Um-hmm.
VOICE. Prepping for the upcoming pandemic session with students, sir? What are you going to teach — health, environment, microorganisms, plants, balanced diet? You plan to cover your biology syllabus through studying the pandemic?
TEACHER.[Continues dozing with his eyes shut, but keeps murmuring to himself] Yeah—who knows—all these seem— [yawns] so irrelevant—we just—need to—curb this—save lives—
VOICE. Sheesh, predictable! Isn’t it the right time to reassess the lesson plans for teaching science?
TEACHER. Huh, what? [Jolts up in his chair and adjusts his glasses. His dozing has missed a beat, and squints his eyes. He turns his head around to look suspiciously] Whose voice… was it my fever dream?
VOICES. Not really!
A big blob drops centerstage from the space above. It has a greyish greasy appearance, and some bright protruding red spikes. Like bright decorations. It lands gently, rolling and tumbling, with no care in the world.
TEACHER.[Stands up alert] What the — who are you?!
BLOB. Oh you need some ID? Do I look like a docile body that will submit to surveillance? Geez, you haven’t paid heed to the news lately!
Another blob drops from above, but quite sharply. It bounces off its bum, ricochets and then comes to a halt. The first blob helps to pull it up. And then drops in a third. They all look identical in their greasy dull greys and bright reds.
TEACHER.[stupent] Crap! That’s it! [shoots across the room towards the drawers]
Where are my masks, oh dear, my ol’ sanitizer! [haphazardly moving about in the further corner of the room]
BLOB 2.[In a suave tone] Easy mister, easy. That ain’t very rational of you — that isn’t social — [sniggers]
TEACHER.[Shell-shocked] Please come no near — please —
BLOB 3.[chuckling to his colleagues] Funny how they behave! [Turns to the teacher] We are supposed to distance ourselves physically [gesturing the space between them] — like we are doing — but not aggravate it to such panic!
TEACHER.[with mortified, bulged out eyes] But you are a vicious threat, a havoc, a global catastrophe, the great plague of many centuries — you have not only caused a planetary crisis affecting every single person, but also wrecked such havoc on the most vulnerable amongst us! Look at the number of people of colour, people without proper nutrition, that are dying – look at the impact on the people who are still having to go out to work on the frontlines –
BLOB 1. Aww, did I do all that? [Mimics a tone of self-pity] Poor, poor you. It surely must’ve been my folks who told you to ditch the notions of [throws up fingers as if to enumerate] universal public health, and economic equality, and unstratified class-less society, and anti-racist politics and a humane science —
The blobs have now positioned themselves comfortably in the space around. They surround the teacher on all sides, but maintain a cordial distance, as is socially sanctioned these days.
TEACHER.[regaining] But, how come science isn’t huma—
BLOB 3.[Swiftly raising a pointed finger in excitement] Knew you would jump the gun at it — so predictable! Of all the other things I mentioned, you so instantly opted to defend science.
TEACHER. Well our science has helped save lives, improved longevity, dispelled harmful superstitions — our drugs have resisted against germs and diseases, except for — till now [gives an accusative look] you nasty buggers—
BLOB 2. — who brings a curtain down on the world order, right? [chortily lets out a full belly laughter, blobs 1 and 2 join him] Am I the vice-incarnate? The reason for all mayhem on earth currently? Am I also responsible for your rampant Islamophobia, class hatred, untouchability, your shameless racism? Funny how Science is the all do-gooder neutral God, but is so ready to collapse its high tower gates and feign ignorance and culpability when responsibility or crisis comes knocking!
TEACHER. It surely is powerful, and there are reasons for it. But [now, after regaining composure] why should I explain that you? You are an enemy, the major one that we can’t get our hands on — not that we would like to — virulent enemies. I can’t believe we are even having a conversation —
BLOB 1. But you must, my dear teacher of science — because I think — rather a hell lot of us in the nature thinks — that humans can actually do a lot better with some dollops of sane advice and reality check.
TEACHER. Ahh. [Recoiling back now and slightly more steady] Then open up your secrets! Tell us how we can tackle the pandemic — How to create a vaccine in no time — or [his face lights up with possibility] at least tell us how to trigger a mutiny amongst your ranks — is it possible to engineer a mutant that will neutralize you –
All the blobs break into splitting laughter. The teacher is dumbfounded.
BLOB 3.[Recovering from the dose of humour] Funny you are, with your sense of entitlement! I promise you that we intend nothing of that sorts. And as for mutinies and infighting, I trust the humans to be doing it sooner and killing themselves off than we do! [Another bout of laughter ensues]
TEACHER.[Quite crossed] That is insensitive!
BLOB 2.[Addressing Blob 1 and 3, in a hushed voice] Hey, isn’t this fun! Give me some silence. [Then sushes everyone up loudly. They all stop laughing]. [Turns to address the Teacher] Hey! You know what’s sensitive?
You can teach them mathematics of graphs and simulations through the body counts. You know, someone observed—a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. [They all burst into laughter again]
TEACHER.[His frustration now changes into a lack of proper words] Oh you’re dark!
BLOB 2. Not quite as dark as the smoked mosques of your cities!
The teacher goes silent at this, presumably out of shame. The blobs exchange smirks and glances with each other.
BLOB 1.[Still smirking] Relax Mr. Science Teacher, my friends are just being mischievous. [Gesturing the teacher to take a seat, without fear] Actually we thought we can also partake in a bit of the sciences that you teach, you know, for ourselves. It’s a nice, productive way to spend time working from home — right? [Allows the Teacher to cool himself down]. Maybe we can at least help you prepare for your online session tomorrow.
TEACHER.[Sitting down on his chair, looking drained, resigning to a conversation he now realizes he can not escape] How?
BLOB 2. Let’s see – you mind starting with your official texts? [gestures to a particular book lying on the desk]. As you were so quick to relegate us to your micro-foes, might you just help us read up from the textbook and say why exactly are we foes? We were quite curious, you see.
TEACHER. Is it so?
BLOB 1. Yes, absolutely.
TEACHER.[Slowly relaxes himself on the chair] Umm, well [looks for a particular book from the pile] I don’t think we need a textbook reference for this. But still, since you insist. I remember the chapter talking about some, erm, I don’t remember the exact words — but what the book says are ‘harmful’ bacteria and protozoa — [searching for the appropriate pages] can’t see any mention of any ‘beneficial’ virus! Yeah, right here – chapter titled “MICROORGANISMS: FRIEND AND FOE” – it says —
“common ailments like cold, influenza (flu)
and most coughs are caused by viruses.
Serious diseases like polio and
chickenpox are also caused by viruses.”
There you go!
BLOB 3. Hahahaha! Demonization spares not even the tiniest of organisms! Funny how you guys have the same categorization for microorganisms that you use for your fellow humans! Why the sharp divide? I understand viruses are your foes, but who actually are your micro-friends?
TEACHER. Those would be the ones used in the preparation of medicines such as antibiotics, in fixing nitrogen for agriculture. Those that ‘are used in the preparation of curd, bread and cake,’ and also ‘for the production of alcohol’. And those that
“are also used in cleaning up the environment.
For example, the organic wastes (vegetable peels,
remains of animals, faeces, etc.) are broken down
into harmless and usable substances by bacteria.”
BLOB 2. Oh hold there a bit. Folks [turning to his colleagues] I am a bit confused, what he just described are a series of unidirectional benefits. It isn’t friendship – maybe leeching? [Turns to the teacher] Don’t you think ‘collaborators’ is a better word?
TEACHER.[Only half resigned to it] Call whatever, what’s there in semantics?
BLOB 2. A hell lot! Semantics reflect world-views. [Stands up and paces down the carpet] Your ascribed friendliness is specifically meant for those microbes that help you make stuff that you consume — food, alcohol, medicines, crops — or kill other microbes that you don’t like. Friends are those that serve you benefits, easy gifts. What about those microbes that have got nothing to do with human productive activities? Or those types of bacteria that are the one of the world’s most numerous and crucial constituents of any living matter? Do your science texts even consider their existence in nature? For example, cyanobacteria — the blue-green algae?
TEACHER. Yes, they are the nitrogen fixing ones that help us produce crops—
BLOB 3. Look at the association that you just made, my Einstein! [Slaps its own forehead] Oh lord — I bet the chapter does not mention that it is the same blue-green algae that produced the first oxygen for the Earth’s atmosphere? That, over time, most of the oxygen produced in the planet’s history has been done by this family of bacteria? That they can change oceans? The fact that these are responsible for the earliest photosynthesis? Hell, humans would not even exist if there were no cyanobacteria. Do you reveal this aspect of the natural world to the readers of the text, at least to be grateful about it?
TEACHER. No, erm, it doesn’t. But see, ultimately this is a book written by humans, for other humans. You should expect it to be human-centric, talking about things they can relate to.
BLOB 1.[In a more earnest, imploring voice] But science is about nature, right? It squarely rests on the locus of viewpoint. You can be at the center and grab and derive things from nature’s reserve; or place yourself at the periphery and gather what nature lets you have. Truth is, humans don’t think they are a part of, or a product of, nature. You think you own nature. [Picks up a textbook and casually flickers through the pages] Your Science textbook chapters can’t think beyond terms such as ‘resource’ or ‘management’ or ‘production’ or ‘conservation’ in the chapter headings. Semantics, you see!
TEACHER. Are you angry because viruses have not been emphasized much in the textbooks?
BLOB 2. Yes, but not in the way you think. We are angry not because ‘we’ haven’t been given the kind of attention that we deserve, but because how glaring these omissions are in totality. [Blob 1 and 3 nod in unison] Did you mention the cowpox virus? The one used to make vaccines for your kids against smallpox – the virus sequence that regulates the amylase gene cluster, enabling humans and other primates to eat starchy foods you otherwise couldn’t? Your immune system is in large parts a gift of microorganisms — the ones you inherit through your mother’s milk, the ones that you find in your gut. By the way, good luck explaining that to your formula foods industry and the ‘scientists’ who work there! But anyway, these should have made it to your list of ‘friendly’ microbes, even by your own standards.
TEACHER. So you would be okay if this missing piece of information gets added, right? To perhaps paint a more true and balanced description of microorganisms —
BLOB 3.[In a deep angry tone] You precisely miss the point. Textbook science must work to reveal Nature, not place value judgments on its functional outcomes! Why don’t you trust the young minds to do it for themselves? They’ll make their own judgment by relating to what they experience in the world around them. [Earnestly] I mean, they’re reflective, right? Or would you rather not have them exercise that rationality — dictating bluntly what they must infer and think out of facts? [It is for the blob a clear moment of terrible realization] Or — is it — that you do not trust them — Maybe that’s why your species is this messed up? Because you don’t trust your young ones intellectually? [The more it goes on, the more furious it gets with the indignation] Or — is it that — you are scared that they might ask too many uncomfortable questions? About your Science, about your Society — your project of using the mask of Science for hiding the scandal you call Social will be torn off you think —
At this point, Blob 1 rushes to pacify Blob 3, who is clearly taken aback by its own afterthought. Blob 1 lets out a deep exhalation and turns towards the teacher with a what-have-you-done gesture. The teacher is lost.
BLOB 2.[Clears his throat and recomposes himself] Well, keep that as something for later — you’ll surely understand. [Pauses and breathes deeply] But, what we were saying is, erm — what must be revealed in science books — is that transmitting foreign genomes into your cells, which causes the disease in you — is exactly what we are supposed to do! Reveal the true nature, that’s it. You may hate us for it currently because it serves you in no productive way. But did you consider thinking of us as just biological ferries that carry genes between different organisms and even different species? Tch tch! Do you realize that viruses keep doing this all the time between species, contributing to the creation of this wonderfully complex body called Nature that you are ultimately a tiny part of? In such contexts, do your theories really matter then, whether we came from fish, or from bats, or snakes, or all of these through multiple transfers and such —
BLOB 3.[Chuckles half-heartedly to Blob 2] I think it matters for them to keep alive tales. Not like stories meant for young kids in junior classes, not like that. But tales which are juvenile. Juvenile ideas which short-change biodiversity as if some kind of pristine alchemy, magic — and proceeds casually to criminalize diversity based on use-value. No wonder their kids trained with such ‘Science’ education grow up to become such believers!
BLOB 1. And what was supposed to be the fundamental difference between them (humans) and other constituent beings of nature has now fueled the runaway system that is beyond attainable control – even for themselves!
TEACHER. Err, what would that be — arms race, unsustainable growth, technology?
BLOB 1. Yes, the building instinct — to make and manufacture — the constant drive to engineer and produce — generate and layer on top of the other and keep on making.
But this itself [pauses for a bit] is fundamentally driven by something more crucial to you guys — a much more primal act of making and manufacturing, as ancient as your first spoken languages.
TEACHER. And what’s that?
BLOB 2. — your making of myths and stories! Your manufacturing of consent! Layers upon layers of them, like an onion. Layers of myths that are frozen through time, till they begin to look like hard truths. God-given in some cases, Science-given in others.
TEACHER. Ah — [Pondering] So you are not just referring to human religions, cultural myths –
BLOB 1. No we’re not. We are not just talking about beasts and demons, all-powerful Gods and their miracles, heavens and the netherworld. We are basically talking about everything that you do — everything that is ‘human’ – what you call the ‘society’ or ‘law’ or ‘economy’ — or even ‘science.’
TEACHER. But myths help us survive, don’t they? Stories that rock us to sleep while containing us safe in the imaginaries. They aren’t necessarily a problem.
BLOB 3.[Chuckling at this point] Hey, don’t tell your academic bosses that you discussed science and society issues with a ‘microbe’! They will cancel your pay-check and you will have to “stay back at home”, rather than “working from home”! Not that you are an “Essential service provider” in any case.
TEACHER.[With a half grin] Huh. It’s not even clear anymore if they would need jobs such as mine anymore, even when all this is over – if at all. You go on –
BLOB 2. Hmmmm. [Trying to pick up the conversation from where it got paused] So we were talking about – erm – yeah, necessary myths. Yes, quite rightly so. You probably do need myths to survive. But you see, the problem is elsewhere. The problem is when you forget so easily that myths are myths, and start believing in them as the ‘objective reality’. For example, Nature’s other societies — migrating birds, hardworking ants, patient bees — do not create myths about themselves or others. There exists laws, like natural selection, prey-predator relations, division of labour in bee colonies. These exist as phenomena. But humans, who can create stories, picked up selectively from what they observed. And to what end? To use, for example, something like the system of queen, worker and drone bees as a model to justify your brutally oppressive construct of the caste system — and that’s a shame.
BLOB 1. There are the million minute balancing acts, and rope tricks, that keep Nature in furtive motion. Symbiosis which exists in Nature, or mutualisms — are fine lessons to be ingrained in your society — to make no distinction between the weakest and fragile and those that have. You would have worshiped diversity instead of morally panicking about it. You would have learned to celebrate differences within your own species, instead of using my excuse to pour out racist venom against specific biological features or religious identities.
BLOB 3. You failed to interpret the detailed notes that your scientists gathered in their field visits. You failed to interpret them as social commentaries. And therefore, my friend, you failed to interpret them as even scientific commentaries. Else you would’ve noticed how other fishes treat the ‘cleaner fish’ — the ones that clean other predators by feeding off their dead cells. Not only do the predators respect and protect the cleaner fish, but they are also known to reduce their aggression towards even other prey species, while at the cleaning stations. Is there something to be noted? [advances menacingly towards the Teacher] How does your society treat those people who clean your wastes?
Well, this is a crucial juncture. The play did warn, when it started, that troubled times outside of what is visible on the stage would be referred to — here and there. Who would have thought that it would make mention of all things mundane, picking up things from the streets. Should the daily commonplace be the focus of the quarantine? Surely that was not meant to be. When it took a sharp turn towards the dingy by-lanes of wastes and sanitations, it was probably the time that footnotes could only do so much.
As required, the audience would be, for cogency, shuffling through the handouts to find the relevant subtexts, or would google furiously on their smartphones for brief summaries. They might buy time for more thoughts, and embarrassingly excuse themselves. Or they might choose to sit back, they would like to see an end to this — with clenched jaws and slitted eyes resonating with the Teacher — they would make their own questions the Teacher’s questions, own doubts the Teacher’s doubts. We think the latter possibility is ripe, though the reasons are feeble. The play continues with its tattered set pieces. The confines of discussion have opened up. The world outside has moved within.
TEACHER. It feels we humans are too detached today for any contemplation. We are so torn between our biological, or perhaps ‘natural’ existence, and our economic existence. Tell me, does Nature also have an ‘economy’ of sorts, that it has to manage?
BLOB 2. What do you think? What is the etymological origin of the word ‘economy’?
TEACHER. I think it means management of household resources. But I have my doubts — can nature at all be likened to a household — and is there any need to manage its ‘household’? What would be the finances — is it not more like regulation of biotic substances — exchanges of sorts —
BLOB 1.[Imploring] Oh you mean — like money? Like bartering of commodities?
TEACHER. Umm — yes, I think so.
BLOB 1. Ah — [throwing up his arms] that’s again one of the myths humans have created for themselves.
TEACHER. What do you mean?
BLOB 3. I mean the myth of equating the idea of ‘economy’ with ‘money’, or ‘market economy’. [A gentle smile plays on its lips] Money was only created to manage your debts. But you have lived inside the money-driven market economy for so long now that you yourselves have forgotten all that it ever was [clicks his fingers] — just a myth!
BLOB 2. Well, only if you need some recap, the first currencies—in the form of sea shells and other stuff — were constructed in order to keep track of IOUs. Now does nature have IOUs? Yes! Just look at the mutualism between different species in a niche — a household, as nature sees it — like say the one between the clown-fish and the sea-anemone. If this feels too basic and not-so-complex as human monetary exchange relations, look at entire ecosystems. All that different organisms are doing there is a complex interconnected net of IOUs. There are complex practices of saving for the future as well – just peep into an ants’ colony, or a termites’ fortress. Everyone is putting in their labor all the time, and at the same time, no one appropriates anyone else’s labor. That’s an entire complex economy in action — yes economy, in the ‘household management’ sense of the term. But there is no ‘money’ or currency of exchange! There is no private property, there is no accumulation of ‘resources’, there is no ‘owning’ of Nature by anyone, there are no Wall Streets, there is no class war.
TEACHER. But there are parasites in Nature, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you say they are examples of appropriating the host’s labor?
BLOB 2.[Snaps fingers] Parasites? [Shares quick glances with its colleagues] I suppose you mean things like us? [Menacing look threatening to make a comeback]
TEACHER.[Embarrassed, apprehensive of the reactions] No no, didn’t specifically have you all in mind.
BLOB 1. But that’s how your books classify us, don’t they? Parasites! Tell me, if on the one hand you have us as agents in the ‘Natural economy’ let’s say, on the other hand you have your capitalist class who can’t be accused of putting in any labour in your mythical ‘Money economy’ – which of these are ‘parasites’ in the true sense you think?
BLOB 3. And to talk about how fragile your myths about money are. The myth lost its clothes for instance, when the populace of your own country was told overnight that your five hundred rupee paper notes had no value any more! It just took a strongman at the center of power, backed up by a xenophobic populist mass politics to create a myth to supercede from earlier. That is amazing by all standards! An entire country’s currencies gets invalid overnight, or gets blown up, like what happened in Venezuela, and that kind of seems okay with all!
BLOB 2. Tomorrow if everyone in your country starts believing that for whatever reason, the currency notes lying right now in your wallets is of no value, it will actually lose all its value. You will then realise that all that note really is – a piece of printed paper with someone’s face on it. It is a fabulous construct that shifts shapes, and assumes value, as required. Like now, in South Korea, where it is deemed useless — because they think that the cash reserves are infected and will carry the pandemic. So they burn it — poof!
BLOB 1. Like [turning to the other two blobs while trying to hide his laughter] like — pfft — believing in the myth that the pandemic can be tackled ‘scientifically’ while maintaining the dominant economic model — hahahaha! [All the blobs burst out into laughter] And your governments — they are conducting triages to determine whose life is more important, whose to save, and whose to let go! Such is the glorious dawn over your mass graves — that you, you treat not the older people — because your health set-up and economics would not be able to afford it!
BLOB 2. Well, they do conduct triages in ordinary times as well. Till now, the pandemic deaths cumulatively in the country are lesser than the number of children who died in Bihar last year from Acute Encephalitis Syndrome. They were all malnourished, belonging to working class families. Within a month’s time hundreds of them died! What was your nation’s response? Zilch! What happened to the doctor who blew the whistle on the state of public health infrastructure, in the state that was responsible for the children just allowed to die like that? Is he out of prison yet?.
There have been abrupt sequences of entries and exits — mostly curious entries — of similar looking blobs in the stage, through various wings, orifices, vents of the hall. They have dropped and rolled in the scene, scrawled and squealed across the stage floor. They have been taking up space around — sitting on top of racks, the steel wardrobe, behind the refrigerator. When we began, we thought the play could very well be in a closed contained space, undisturbed. But not quite so. These movements of these blobs have been too random — they have been in a flurry, in packs, in pairs, at random. We could not follow up with that. Do we know who orchestrated such movements, or was it meant to happen? Their invasion in this play is sudden, the outbreak is blurry. Nothing is quite clear.
TEACHER.[Sheepishly in a tone of admission] Yes, I understand the fallacy, but why would you conflate science thus? Isn’t it a pursuit of facts — truth — isn’t it more than just being convincing stories and believable fables —
BLOB 2.[Hits back with a defiant tone] Yet it maintains a garb of nonchalance. Of being a noncommittal bystander. Surely, if textbooks can relegate viruses to being the perennial foe, science can do something to annihilate it completely? [Flips through a few pages of the textbook at hand] Pray tell me, why do your school-level science textbooks not discuss the possibilities of designing a Universal anti-Influenza vaccine?
TEACHER. From my experience, well, I can tell that it might be — erm, because it is too complicated to explain such things to school students.
BLOB 2. Oh, really? [Zeroing in on one particular page of the textbook] Is it more complicated than, say, explaining the design of a universally non-biodegradable building material? The one that you call ‘plastics’ — which merits a dedicated chapter in the textbook. Let me read out what it says:
“Plastic is also a polymer like the synthetic fibre.
All plastics do not have the same type of arrangement
of units. In some it is linear, whereas in others
it is cross-linked...
Plastic articles are available in all
possible shapes and sizes as you can see in Fig....
Have you ever wondered how this is possible?”
Jeez, it doesn’t look very simple to me! Does it to you guys? [Other blobs shake their heads in denial] Look at the emphasis it creates and the optics it produces — it comes as the 3rd chapter in the book, whereas something as vital as pollution in the study of nature is relegated to the 18th chapter slot. You also know most of your classrooms may not even make it to the end of the book in an academic year.
BLOB 3.[Turning to Blob 2] I think I know what it is. The narrative of highlighting pollution and downgrading plastics do not quite make a good saleable myth, do they? Public discussions about anti-Influenza vaccines either through textbooks or medical journals are perhaps a threat to the future profits of the patent-based medicine industry? On the other hand, it seems much more economically profitable to motivate children to work for industries, which unquestioningly manufacture and use plastics, one form or the other.
[Turns towards the Teacher] And you would still say the myth of your money economy is not connected with your science? There is no attempt to raise such questions in your Science education, and thus the ‘scientists’ you produce are far less likely to think of concerns about a universal vaccine as concerns of Science. [Moves closer to the Teacher and leans forward with a sharp whisper] The body of science research you collectively construct is skewed, cherry-picked, filled with half-truths, and therefore — a myth.
TEACHER.[Trying to put up one last desperate wall of defence] But scientists are curious about Nature. [Paces down the room, troubled, bruised — more with self-doubts, than from the Blobs] There are sincere biologists who consider science as the literature of Nature; and Nature as something more real than Science. They do work hard to reveal its wonders I think —
BLOB 1. It matters not what a few good-willed researchers do, my dear. Because sporadic efforts fall far short of the global rhizome of the industrial complex trying to rein in and govern ecological networks, with evidenced scientific knowledge in its hands. Particularly when the salaries of your scientists come from this very industrial complex! Look how the lungs of the Earth — the Amazonian rainforests — are being devoured in sustained spurts of fire — snatching away swathes of Brazil, parts of Peru, gnawing down Paraguay and Bolivia. From outer space, they are such ghastly perforations on the body of the globe. Years of weakened environmental protection, human profit-making and prolonged arid seasons from human-engineered global warming did it! Is your global science — the entirety of it from various disciplines — sincere in this cause? Does it rally otherwise, washing up the wounds? No. The respiratory ecological network of the earth is being injured and inflamed, cut up in pieces, and sold off. It is going up in the air in bloody smoke! I heard the current pneumonic attacks on human lungs do the same — create hazy patches on the outer edges of the lungs. Can’t help but comment that it is perhaps a tremendously sad poetic justice?
TEACHER.[Taken aback] Oh — this is — devastating. This is – oh – a very sharp stab in the heart. But I am sure — there will be — [stutters] there are ongoing — efforts — from the governments — agencies — people —
BLOB 1. Sorry, who? If the forest fires were a distant event, look what your governments are doing to the forests right now, when entire countries are shut down — giving approvals to wildlife clearance for strings of developmental project proposals, lifting already ritual limits on carbon emissions, bailing out fossil fuel industries – all under the excuse of ‘turbo charging’ an economy that is right now collapsing like a house of cards. This is nothing short of ecocide! What is the fate of the environment when such guile pervades human systems throughout?
TEACHER. Oh the sheer audacity! [Clenches his head and bows down in despair]
BLOB 3. And even those who wish to do good are silenced so easily by authorities. Even a human health tragedy falls short of the pride of a nation. In any case your Government and Scientific community have outsourced the responsibility and costs of the pandemic to the most vulnerable people in your midst, through locking them down instead of spending on testing, and health services. They used the technologies of your ‘value neutral’ Mathematics and Science to formulate and justify these policy decisions. Not to mention the kind of all-pervasive surveillance technologies your Governments are institutionalizing, taking this opportunity. Like we said before, more than the virus itself, harm would be due to panic, xenophobia, authoritarianism and lies that humans will bring upon themselves. You need Science not because you are in love with Nature. But because you need to control and govern Nature—which is a blasphemy for me, because the same humans are only a tiny part of the same Nature. How can you guys ever dream of governing it? You are not even capable of governing yourselves!
TEACHER. I get it, I realize it now. [A blank stare in the wide open] This is all a cyclic loop — Science feeds the myth which then sustains the nations and their ploys —
BLOB 3. That is true.
TEACHER.[In a long drawn pause of contemplation] I think I can see the craftily built myth that you are referring to — in science education as well. [With a deep breath] Stories that crumble — because we are detached from Nature — we treat Nature with a certain fear, of staying away, staying put, replete with metaphors of containment. Oh yes — [Hurriedly returns back to his desk] I remember this [Pulls out a textbook page]
“We live in an environment that is full of
many other creatures apart from us.
It is inevitable that many diseases
will be transmitted by other animals.”
This is a fallout of the project of colonising the Nature, isn’t it?
BLOB 2. Yes. [Solemnly] Colonialism, with the classical mix of deep fear of the ‘wild other’. This fear necessitates your need to create myths for yourself to feel safe – you had begun with simple myths about Gods and Demons, and now over thousand years, you have graduated to more complex ones such as your economic measures, your quarantine measures, your border walls and transport bans, your insurance policies, for-profit medicine industry and private health-care, your detention centers and prisons, your corporate bail-outs, your army and surveillance-capitalism, your biopolitics, your governmentality, your “work from home”s and your pathetic “social distancing”, your medico-social population registers, your “War on Viruses”.
BLOB 1. Look for yourself if you can make out this ‘othering’ of Nature from the chapter titled ‘OUR ENVIRONMENT’ here. [Sifts through the textbook again] It attributes increased amounts of waste material to “improvements in our life-style” and “changes in attitude”, such as the use of “more disposable” things and increased “packaging”. And the one on ‘POLLUTION’ tells an untrue fact when Delhi is shared as a “success story” in the “fight against pollution”. Neither does not mention that New Delhi is the most polluted capital city in the world, nor the fact that twenty-one Indian cities are among the world’s most polluted. Hell, we have done more in just a few months to clean up the air of your cities than all the glorious efforts you mention in your propaganda material here! [throws away the book in disgust]
BLOB 2.[Makes a gesture towards BLOB 1 to calm down. Then addresses the teacher] Point is, this is the integrity with which substantial facts about our immediate Nature and anthropogenic presence is being reported in your textbooks. What attitude does it demand from the users of such text? Look at the recommendations it lists! Switching over from fossil fuels to alternative fuels such as “solar energy, hydropower and wind energy”, without any serious discussion about how to effect such a change in the current global economy, without any critical analysis of really how environmentally ‘friendly’ these sources of energy are after all. There is no mention of the need to cut down on human energy consumption. Or a shift in the entire premise of the human activity and political economy. Statements like “small contributions [that] can make a huge difference”, such as planting trees and nurturing “the ones already present in the neighbourhood” fails to address the massive elephants in the room — global MNCs, hand-in-gloves governments, crony think-tanks. Yet somehow places the individual man as the likely saviour — in whose hand the salvation of the planet rests! It fails to comment that the natural forests on this planet didn’t come into being because humans planted those trees. Majority of science texts talk about pollution in Nature, while keeping Nature completely out of the picture. It feels like a doctor talking about a disease while keeping the body itself out of the discussion. Doesn’t work that way — that is patronising and colonising attitude — of looking down beneath —
And people in the audience, among those who stayed back, are looking all around. Why are they hovering and closing in with one another with each passing minute. Why are they disobeying the unsaid rule to maintain silence and distance — as always? They must sit at their designated places, do as they are commanded to — as always. There are murmurs of the actors being too provocative. What, these monologues are unscripted? Who said so? Who allowed them? Who conducted the auditions for these roles? Various possibilities are ripe, but the play barely notices any such trivialities.
BLOB 3.[Trying to pacify the Teacher] Look, as we said before, we do not consider ourselves to be friends of humans. You are not an enemy either, you are just another host on whom we can latch on to. And we learn from our pasts, unlike you do. The past gene transfers, through cats, bats, camels and others, resulting in Ebola, SARS, MERS, H1N1, and the ongoing one. We are a far smoother and benign foreign body for humans than our earlier versions which were more destructive on your bodies — therefore in turn more self-destructive and less successful. But we navigated and produced more virulent genotypes. We did not create myths to fool ourselves, we just became more successful. Don’t you think you have something to learn from us?
TEACHER. I am not even sure anymore about our learning capabilities –
BLOB 1. Touche! Not just us, even History itself seems to have failed on you and your learning abilities. Host immune systems and foreign bodies like viruses have always co-evolved as long as life has existed, following the mechanism of evolution by natural selection. But the time and the nature of such unfolding must be questioned. 1918’s Spanish Flu eradicated anywhere between 50 to 100 million humans from the world, approximately 18 million were from your own country. How could it kill so many people? Because your rulers were busy fighting a global war, and thought of accepting the reality of the pandemic as an inconvenience to their war-time ‘national interests’! What has led to the gigantic scales of the current one? Heady mix of chemical and biological production processes, your industrial scale food industry, never-seen-before environmental destruction. hyper-connections within human societies due to economies of scale, and to top it off – yet again – the reluctance of your political rulers to accept the reality. You have essentially no public health infrastructure, no creation of healthy jobs, no way to provide adequate food for most of your species members, and a broken society where no one is equal to anyone else, where healthcare is a business, and doctors’ jobs are being done by the police force. Be sure that gene transfers from across the diverse ecosystems are going to keep happening, and COVIDs-20, 21 and 22s would keep manifesting because of cumulative human faults. Be ready my friend!
BLOB 2.[Steps in to chilling whisper] And just to add — we have no idea what kind of micro-organisms lie latent inside those ice sheets in the melting poles. I don’t think anyone in the past several generations has met them — but what I hear the stories — they sure are scary as hell!
TEACHER.[Quite visibly slipping into a bout of depression at this point] We’ve messed up!
BLOB 2. Pretty much. Look at what you have done to the climate! You are at war not with any so-called virus, you are at war with the planet itself. You have converted the entire planet into a furnace because of your greed. Your inane words like ‘Friends’ and ‘Foes’ are going to be fried when those microorganisms wake up!
Eerie. Something quite eerie has happened over the past stretches of time. One cannot be certain what is being said, and being said by whom. Words are echoing off from the theatre floor to the stage and back, from the parapets onto the heavy curtains. It is a miscellany of voices. There are ruptures from the darkness and silhouettes. Words are indistinguishable from the porous light. Who is it that speaks and who listens? The phrases distant and utterances are incoherent — they recede and overlap among multitudes. Can we really sift through what is happening around? The play has now recruited its themes from those who gather around to see (and read). Some of them are crawling from the margins, others from the streets below the hall, some from wide, some far. The cast has multiplied and faces may not have names. Yet the play proceeds, and follows convention — of assigning words to known accomplices.
BLOB 3. But you know what, the script is already known. Humans will again take refuge in yet another favorite myth of theirs — that everything’s gonna be alright. That they somehow own the almighty Time as well, that they can buy and sell time, while taking refuge in ‘flattening the curve’ — the war cry, the savior slogan! You will quarantine yourself and shut down all economic activities in such crisis times thinking that you are ‘buying’ time, hoping that that you will earn ‘herd immunity’ for free, at the dirt-cheap cost of working-class bodybags. When things get better you will come out of your caves, get back onto the floors of your Stock Exchanges and factories, start selling and betting on time again — like a bull on steroids — and think that you will make up for the losses. You will be faced with relentless waves of health epidemics, economic epidemics — like you have been having since 2008 — climate epidemics and refugee epidemics. But remember brother, Time is on our side – not yours!
[A grandfather clock chimes its bell at a distance at this point, and then another, and another – as if to announce their unanimous agreement with the Blob. It’s midnight. The sound of the bell echoes across the stage. The eeriness has never been so loud, yet so freezing silent]
BLOB 1.[Once the echoing bells fade out] What a tragedy you guys are! Look at the irony of the situation now: those very hands that were the evolutionary miracle that made you who you are today from your primate stages – have now turned into your biggest enemies. If you are to survive the epidemic, you essentially need to treat your own hands—your building instinct—as your nemesis! A small micro-organism was enough to wreck the myths of the liberal establishment that you have built with those hands over the ages—all your Gods, social customs, priests, economies, medicines, leaders, everything and everyone has either left you in the middle of this crisis, or are useless, or worse, are out there making profits off the crisis. Your rulers are using this opportunity to map you to the minutest of details. Your Government’s public health advisories read as if everyone in your society belong to your arrogant urban ivory towers. You guys don’t even have an idea of how to compensate the daily-wage earners in your economy in the midst of a global shutdown—this after being an economy-driven species for 3000 years! You say ‘social distancing’ but you are not willing to provide unconditional basic income and ration to every citizen irrespective of what work they do. ‘Social distancing’ has been your social organising principle even when there were no ‘virus attacks’!
BLOB 2. There is no one or no object that you can really trust anymore. Your investors can not trust your economy anymore. Your citizens don’t really trust your Governments anymore. Your neighbors can’t trust each other anymore. Your students can not trust your school systems anymore. You thought schools and colleges were next to your temples; but the pandemic has proved that you don’t really need any of those institutions when it comes to the question of basic survival. All your own manufactured products have become potential careers of infection for you. Humans are such a tragedy! Can your ‘Science Education’ handle these truths? Does it even come into cognizance with these as truths? Both you and me know the answer to that!
The teacher at this point has given up all attempts to even answer back at anything.
BLOB 1.[Realizes the drain on the poor human body in front of them, and perhaps as an act of pity, says – ] Ok, maybe one last question, before we leave. What is the definition of a ‘VIRUS’, what do you mean by a ‘PANDEMIC’, and what is the meaning of ‘DISEASE’?
TEACHER.[His throat is dry from exhaustion at this point. Gulps some water, either to wet it, or to buy some time to gather the strength to speak, we will never know] Well, I can give you the definitions from Science text books, but I know that is not what you are looking for…
BLOB 1. Yes, I mean the literal, etymological definition. The word ‘VIRUS’ in Latin literally means “poisonous substance”. ‘PANDEMIC’ means “pertaining to all people; public, common”. ‘DISEASE’ is derived from the old French word ‘desaise’ which means “lack, want; discomfort, distress; trouble, misfortune; disease, sickness”. In your textbook chapter on health and diseases, there is no talk about the health of Nature itself – the point that your health is inseparable from the health of Nature and Environment as a whole. The only context in which the ‘Environment’ is even mentioned in that chapter is when it is portrayed as a Petri dish of health hazards that humans should be wary of:
"The health of all organisms will depend on their
surroundings or their environment.
The environment includes the physical environment.
So, for example, health is at risk in a cyclone
in many ways ... For vector-borne infections,
we can provide clean environments. This would not,
for example, allow mosquito breeding. In other words,
public hygiene is one basic key to the prevention of
But what about the health of the Environment? What if it is fatally sick, suffering from several ‘DISEASES’? Not just that it is sick, what our Nature is faced with today is nothing less than a grave ‘PANDEMIC’—a disease that pertains to all constituents in Nature, across the globe and across all ecosystems. One million species of plants and animals are at the brink of the greatest ever mass extinction in the history of the planet, and it’s all due to human activity. One million species!! YOU are the poison as far as Nature is concerned! What if YOU, my brother, are the VIRUS for all of us? If anything, if me or my successors and other family members are successful in either wiping you guys out, or at least in putting you in your place, then shouldn’t we be treated as the ‘ANTI-VIRUS’ for mother Nature? I am not the villain you are looking for, just get a mirror for yourselves!
BLOB 3: But you know what? I think we are going to fail in this. Even we are not capable of leveling the kind of hierarchies you have built over the ages!Your own constructed family of Race, Caste, Capitalism viruses are possibly still going to win this time. In all likelihood, it is in fact going to become a much more unequal world of humans, post this pandemic. But we can also tell you that this is not the end my friend. The battle, if at all, has only just begun.
Eerie silence at this point. A sense of all pervasive failure droops down on the stage like a thick mushroom cloud. The teacher is seen stooping down on his desk, covering his face with his hands, clearly with no energy to pay heed to the non-stop advisories of “avoid touching your face”.
Finally he lifts his face. A look of utter helplessness and plea in his eyes.
TEACHER. But we must think of some refuge, for the kids at least — for the learners — they have not played any role in any of this isn’t it – they should not have to inherit this catastrophe –
BLOB 2. Begin with apologizing to them! Overhaul the attitudes of your education — first teach yourselves to acknowledge the truths as they are, before you go on the preaching mode. When you meet your students the next time , ask them to physically distance themselves from each other, but also remind them the difference between physical distancing and social distancing. Teach them to talk to each other, to differ with each other, to ask questions. Teach them that the only truth is that which is meant for the good of every human being on earth. You can’t give up the locus of the human subject. You must strengthen it — through sense and empathy —
BLOB 1. — and solidarity against oppression. Teach them to rally against colonization of other humans, and colonization of Nature! Teach them about those who fought such struggles. Teach them the history of common people. Remember Chief Seattle’s letter to the US President? Why not start with that – Remember that he wrote without a shred of doubt –
“The President in Washington sends word that
he wishes to buy our land.
But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land?
The idea is strange to us.
If we do not own the freshness of the air and
the sparkle of the water, how can you sell them?
Every part of this earth is sacred to my people.
Every shining pine needle, every humming insect.
All are holy in the memory
and experience of my people.”
He also talked about Education of children —
“Will you teach your children what we have
taught our children?
That the earth is our Mother?
What befalls the earth befalls all
the sons of the earth.”
How about realizing a science curriculum that The Chief envisioned so long back —
“This we know: The earth does not belong to man,
man belongs to the earth.
All things are connected like the blood
that unites us all.
Man did not weave the web of life;
he is merely a strand of it.
Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
Teach them, teach them to teach themselves. Teach them to free up knowledge for all. Can your science, your science education reconstruct itself like that? Can you humans adapt to it?
Maybe time will tell.
[Takes a long pause]
Perhaps, only time will tell.
Curtains, as if there were any.
*The author is a Mathematician and Education Researcher and can be reached at tathagataletters[at]riseup[dot]net
This event brings together writers and activists from the Colombia-Panama, US-Mexico and Mediterranean borders. Between them, they have decades of experience documenting and opposing the global reach of border militarization. Our speakers will discuss the role of borders as instruments of race and class warfare in the service of capital, the place of migrants in the contemporary landscape of labor, and strategies for political organizing against border regimes on either side of the Atlantic.
Friday, January 24th 6-8pm
Location: Columbia University, Room #963 Schermerhorn Extension
Co-sponsored by: Science for the People NYC, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, Potere al Popolo, Punto Rojo Magazine, Architecture Lobby NYC, and the Colombian Studies Group
Edgar Frank is a farmworker organizer in Washington State. He participated in the formation of the first independent farmworker union in WA State since 1986 and today works with Familias Unidas por la Justicia and unions on food sovereignty, participatory democracy models, and just transition demands.
Justin Akers Chacón is a professor of U.S. History and Chicano Studies in San Diego, California and is the author, with Mike Davis, of No One is Illegal.
Francesco Piobbichi is an Italian activist of Mediterranean Hope who organizes both on the Italian border island of Lampedusa, and in the “bracciante” camps of the Italian South, where criminalized migrants are employed as agricultural day laborers. His collections of writing and drawing aim to keep a record of border struggles in the Mediterranean migrant passage and the militant tradition of migrant organizing in Italian agro-industry.
Carlos Villalón is Chilean award-winning photojournalist based in Colombia whose work has been published in National Geographic, The New York Times, and The Guardian, among other outlets. One of his current long-term projects covers the dynamics at the Darién Gap, a jungle region at the border between Colombia and Panama where each year hundreds of migrants from Africa, Southeast Asia and the Americas pass on their way to North America.
Chloe Haralambous (moderator) works with the Greek island collective, Lesvos Solidarity, and the Mediterranean migrant rescue organization, Sea-Watch. She is a PhD candidate at Columbia University.
Laura Penaranda: societyisland at gmail.com
In Part I of the interview, we discussed the motivations, factors, and historical context for the Puerto Rico uprising. They broke down the different demands on the table following Ricky’s July 24th resignation announcement and explained the movement’s conscious decision to step back from the status question.
JunteGente and other initiatives support demands which include: auditing the debt, declaring a gender-based violence state of emergency, the resignation of Wanda Vasquez, strengthening unions, guaranteeing job security, releasing all those previously arrested for political protests, considering climate debt, electoral reform, restitution of stolen public funds, criminally prosecuting corrupt officials, and the creation of popular assemblies. While mind-blowing and sobering, Juanqui and Bernat reminded us that the hardest organizing is still to come.
Part II of the interview covers climate justice, the role of unions, Arab Spring reflections, and openings for international solidarity.
Science for the People:It’s been over a week since Ricky Rosselló announced he would resign. In that time, Wanda Vásquez has proclaimed she doesn’t “want” to replace Rosselló, in what can only be described as a recognition of the movement’s power. With your Arab Spring reflections in mind, what has the past week looked like politically?
Juanqui: Well, the challenge is for this not to become a “seasonal change” but an epochal change, and since the spring is turning into summer… The PNP is fighting among itself for the leftovers of power. In the meantime, several asambleas auto-convocadas (self-organized assemblies) have been happening and organizing around the Island-archipelago.
Whatever happens in the next hours (which is a “mystery” for everyone), needs to have its contrary in the street and in the organization of the people. We (progressive and Left forces) are now in an aggressive organizing phase while simultaneously trying to keep the protests in the street and analysing the situation as we go… Difficult yet hopeful times indeed. There is a possibility that things could take a turn for the worse in terms of who holds power—but not in terms of broadening the radicalization of the public sphere and of organizing efforts.
Science for the People: By all estimates, Puerto Rico will continue to experience increasingly polarized climate patterns. What role has climate change occupied in the uprising’s political discussions?
Juanqui: The political situation hasn’t allowed us to talk about it as much, but we need to tackle this planetary struggle. In the Caribbean, hurricanes, floods, and droughts are going to be stronger and we are going to continue living with them. The issue of climate debt has to be brought to the struggle. Yes, that implies the relationship with the US but how can we begin to weigh in on different struggles in the US? How can we radicalize the idea of the Green New Deal, including what it means for Puerto Rico? The Green New Deal is going to impact Puerto Rico so how we guarantee we have a say in how it plays out?
And then there’s the important issue of our relationship to the diaspora. Because we have been through so much. We are 8.5 million Puerto Ricans in the world but only 3 million in the island archipelago. How do we keep that relationship going? That’s one of the reasons we went to the Socialism Conference in Chicago and to meet with Rossana Rodríguez Sanchez [alderwoman in Chicago’s 33rd ward].
Bernat: There are real organizing challenges here. The demands have been very simple: Ricky Resign, end the Junta, etc. But when you enter the topic of climate change and climate justice, it’s a very complex discussion even just to distinguish: should Puerto Rico care about climate change? On the one hand, even if Puerto Rico went 100 percent green tomorrow, it would have no effect on tomorrow’s global greenhouse gas emissions. We wouldn’t be able to contribute to the conversation in that sense. We don’t sit at the table in any of the G8 meetings, of course, and we don’t have the international power to strike deals for green energy, etc.
On the other hand, we are suffering the effects of the consumption of the First World, the industrial corporations, and the military complex. So we should turn our gears towards demands for a Just Transition. We need to train workers for new sectors and stop pushing for tourism given our coast will be increasingly flooded– and because in the near future, it’s just not a sustainable industry anyhow for Puerto Rico. It’s a hard conversation to have.
Science for the People: We agree that if the US is going to pass a Green New Deal, Left forces must seriously consider its international dimensions, including Puerto Rico and beyond. I know you’re still thinking through these complex topics, but what would you say are some of the demands coming from Puerto Rico for a Green New Deal? What should organizations like ours be pushing for within a People’s Green New Deal regarding Puerto Rico?
Juanqui: In JunteGente, we have different sorts of working groups. Currently one of them is organizing an international meeting around climate change. Those encounters are intended to gather people- from farmers, pescadores, scientists- to listen to each other, collect information and based on that, JuneGente can develop a platform. So I don’t feel comfortable saying ‘this is what we want” because we haven’t had that meeting yet.
Bernat: Our political logic is that we gather the people who actually do the agroecological and environmental work and ask them- have a convening- to collectively set the agenda.
Juanqui: But to answer your question, in general we need support around Just Transition, climate debt, the debt crisis. I mean, The colonial process and the transformation of Puerto Rico has been imposed by a US-focused development. So naturally, our ecological issues are directly related to that. In the past we’ve had the sudden transformation of a diverse archipelago to a sugar monoculture with ecological devastation. Add to that the imposition of the US suburbanization and urbanization models. The car model is the main form of transportation. Puerto Rico has one of the largest concentrations of roads and motor vehicles, and the urban sprawl is just insane. These are all US models. Fordism transformed our landscape. I mention all this because, yes, there is an ecological and climate debt that we have to talk about regarding the US. But these are just general notions.
Science for the People: You are organizing a conference. Can you tell us a little bit about it and why people should attend? [We will link to the conference site here as soon as it goes up.]
Juanqui: Yes, we are trying to bring together social movements, community organizations, scientists, people in public policy, and other sectors to reflect on our planetary crisis but specifically within the context of the Caribbean and Puerto Rico in terms of political ecology, of bringing the political dimension to the ecological reality. Two JunteGente members are leading the organizing of the two-day conference.
We think that we are in a different country. I mean, as Lenin said, there are decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades occur. These two weeks have been decades and decades of happenings. We are in a different country and I think this conference is important given the current political juncture. We want to take advantage of the fact that perhaps we can inspire other people to rise up, reflect, and mobilize. Hopefully in the US as well, because Trump is an embodiment of these chats.
Bernat: He’s a walking chat.
Juanqui: I think people in the US can also rise up and get inspired by the “colony down here”.
Science for the People: Definitely. I got chills with your mention of asambleas populares and the state of emergency against gender-based violence. A recent NACLA piece argued that these protests are quite literally about life and death, as you have mentioned. Quoting the article, “the rhetoric and attitudes of the Governor and his closest allies captured in the chat are ones that promote harm and death in a number of ways, from the outright incitement of violence to the promotion of a neoliberal politics of deadly neglect.” What does the “deadly neglect” of neoliberal politics mean to you?
Bernat: One of the things I find most striking, a catalyzing factor in people showing up, is not only the blatant disregard for Puerto Rican life and well-being but the actual ineptitude and neglect for governance. The administration has neither the capacity nor the inclination, nor the vocation for governance. It makes you– I say this very cautiously– it almost makes you yearn for decent right-wing people.
Juanqui: Oh shit—
Bernat: But you know what I’m saying. They would govern in a direction I disagree with and they would have a different view of what society should be but at least it’s a political debate. This is like blatant egoistic greed. Regarding “deadly neglect,” I would stress that, yes, they took on a task without being up to the challenge but the worst part (though hopeful) is knowing that literally anyone could do a better job. If we learn something from the chat, it is that anyone can govern, that we can govern ourselves. If these were the people who were supposedly the experts on governance, then we know that we can do it, that anyone can do it. Pick someone at random and say, “what do you think should be the direction in which we should administer the Puerto Rican well-being?” —and anyone would do a better job.
Juanqui: In Puerto Rico at least, the government is an institution to hire, contract, and accumulate a maximum profit. These people are thinking as a group- not even a company, “how can we get rich?” These wealthy families are casta criolla [homegrown caste] but they’re also just the natural product this logic– in a colonial framework. It’s a competition for who gets the money: the gringo or the criollo.
Bernat: The neoliberal state has deteriorated or made almost extinct an entire class of public servant experts. There were career public servants who knew the nooks and crannies of how things got done. And suddenly we don’t have that in our utilities. That puts the government in a position of hiring”experts” who do not have public service as their goal, but just profit.
Science for the People: One of the counterforces to this rampant privatization have been the unions. What role have the unions played in the uprising?
Juanqui: First, a little context. Since at least the late 1990s after the Telefonica Strike in 1997-98, unions became really fragmented and lost a lot of power under neoliberalism. This is partly why unions have not been a big organizing force. This is not to say that there aren’t militant unions active in today’s processes. Militant unions like UTIER and others have been involved in the mobilizations and in resisting utilities privatization. They have contributed to the moment with their knowledge on the logistics of marching in massive numbers. They have also offered their offices to different movements so we can have our political meetings, reflect on what’s happening, and organize actions.
Bernat: There have been unions in the meetings and on the streets. As we mentioned, one of the demands of the mobilizations was to repeal the new labor reform, strengthen unions, and fight for job security. Something beautiful that would have happened on Monday [had Ricky not announced his resignation] – is that the union of truckers, instead of simply going on strike, put out a public statement saying “we are going to have a meeting to propose a strike but we want to know that the Puerto Rican public are ready to withstand the effects, the consequences of our striking, because if we strike there won’t be gas in the stations, there won’t be food in the stores, nor basic medicine in pharmacies. This was planned to be an indefinite strike to pressure Ricky. So they did a democratic social media referendum and people were saying, “yeah, of course, let’s do it, we are ready.” It was one of the most beautiful demonstrations of participatory democracy.
Science for the People: Let’s talk about the Right. What has been its response to the uprising and to Ricky’s resignation?
Juanqui: You have a very wealthy elite of criollos that really don’t know shit about el pueblo in Puerto Rico; and yet they make all the decisions, living in their own class bubble.At this time yesterday even the most conservative, pro-capitalist organizations, were like “ok, Ricky Renuncia” because we were affecting them. All the biggest malls in Puerto Rico, which are part of the political party of the governor, agreed he had to step down. The malls closed today and in previous days. Those are millions of dollars that they lost. So the economic pressure was real.
Bernat: There is something peculiar about this context though. Some people are referring to the chats as “the David Sanes of the uprising”. David Sanes was a Puerto Rican employee of the US Navy who was killed in one of the bombing practices in Vieques. His death was the catalyzing agent for the struggle to close the Navy Base in Vieques. People are calling these chats the David Sanes – i.e. the catalyzing agent- of the uprising. But there is a peculiarity. As soon as Sanes was killed, it was the organized Left that led the struggle to close the base. They were a very ecumenical, rigorous, and extremely organized part of the Left.
But in this case, an FBI intervention was among the catalyzing events. The FBI arrested Julia Keleher, the now-former Secretary of Education and five other people [on charges of steering federal money to politically connected and unqualified contractors]. So we have to be cautious because the catalytic agents were from the Right, from the colonial powers. On one side we have the FBI arrests and on the other, we have the leaked chats which came from inside the ruling party. The latter was a political fight that got blown out of proportion— I’m sure they didn’t intend for this to play out the way it did. Right now, the Party is rumbling. Right now I’m sure they’re lamenting having put that out. Those two occurrences provide context for the struggle.
Now that we have the struggle, how is the Right going to react? The sad part is that they don’t have to mobilize much for their agenda to work because Wanda Vasquéz is going to replace Ricky as interim Governor, Wanda has already been singled out for having done illegal contracts, etc. So they already put in place another corrupt figure. So she won’t change much. The sad part is that the Right doesn’t have to do that much to gain control of the political opening. That’s why we have to continue fighting and struggling.
Juanqui: Yea, this plays well for the US Right. A part of our challenge is precisely to show, bring forward, that Trump and Ricardo Rosselló are the same in their hatred towards poor people, black people, women, all sorts of minorities, immigrants, etc, etc. This is part of the struggle: how can we unite #RickyRenuncia, #TrumpRenuncia? One sector of the Right will want a stronger Junta, with an expansion of IMF-type neoliberal policies around Puerto Rico. Some rich Puerto Ricans will benefit from that. There is another sector of the Right that wants their own sphere of autonomy over the economy. In that context, how do we move the conversation towards more radical democracy? That’s one of our great tasks.
Science for the People: Some people have called the recent uprising in Puerto Rico, the Puertorrican Summer, making a direct comparison with the Arab Spring. Do you agree with this assessment, that implies desires for longterm regime change in Puerto Rico?
Bernat: Not only are we honored as a country by the analogy, because honestly Tahrir Square and everything that happened in the Arab Spring was inspiring to us but also because that was the first thing that popped into our minds as soon as the protests started saying “Ricky Reununcia” we said: “Ok, what happened after Mubarak? Nothing” That was very present in people’s minds.
The day after they got Mubarak out, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood took the better part of the political moment and there was no real or radical regime change. If you go to Spain, and the Occupy Movement, what they have in common is that since the Arab Spring we’ve been very good at appearing in masses everywhere, coming out hardcore in multitudes. But then there has to be a program of political organizing after the fact, after the protests, and we have to be ready for the next step of radicalizing, for the next step of political organizing in the direction of true participatory democracy.
So this is what we’re going to see from today onwards: if we’re going to stay at that level of the Arab Spring or if we are going to take it to the next level or what we think should be the next steps in the international people’s struggles.
Science for the People: With that in mind, what are some immediate next steps?
Juanqui: We are calling for immediate extraordinary elections outside of the old electoral system. We mentioned some of the electoral reform demands.
Bernat: It would be very interesting if the different sectors that have been protesting could sit at the table and, for example, with Victoria Ciudadana and actually negotiate. OK, we’re going to back you up. But not to cross our arms and say “okay, let’s see what you do”. No, the basis is to continue mobilizing. The power of the people that we have seen through the demonstrations is what sparked the idea for the assemblies. So if have enough feedback from what people want, you can sit down and say “OK, we’ll back you up but these are the demands we have”. That is the most actionable scenario that I see right now because of the way things are set. Not joining a party but putting our demands with a party who would have the possibility of gaining the support of the people who have been manifesting.
Science for the People:Do you have any advice to US-based organizations like Science for the People who stand in solidarity with the Puerto Rican protests and struggle on how to best support the efforts following Ricky’s resignation?
Juanqui: It’s important to recognize the victory. We have to understand that this is not a revolution in the sense of a radical transformation of the system but it is a revolution in the sense of the people changing at least their ways of recognizing their power.
Bernat: the political zeitgeist has changed.
Juanqui: That’s powerful. For me, the topic of solidarity is crucial and beautiful. One thing is to maintain the presence of Puerto Rico in the reflections that you have- political reflections and beyond. La importancia de mantener nuestra presencia en la ecuación. The other expression of effective solidarity is to also rise up and struggle against your own oppressions in the US against ICE, against Trump, against xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. Wherever you are, join the struggles there. Let’s ensure we continue to see the connections between Puerto Rico and all other struggles. So, those two things: keep us alive in your conversations and be a part of the struggle against your oppressors– which are our same oppressors.
Bernat: And I would not hesitate to call this an international movement in the sense that you mentioned the Arab Spring. For example, the feminist movement that we were inspired by Argentina and Spain, we’re in an international movement, we need to solidify those points. This is internationalism at work: we have to own that, we have to believe that it is an international movement. These are not just separate accidental international struggles. This is a global fight against neoliberalism, against capitalism, and against a process that denies climate change and denies that we need to mobilize now to transform in order to save the habitability of our planet.
Juanqui: What Bernat says is crucial. I mean, yes, there is a particular political and colonial context for Puerto Rico but this is also a global struggle for radical democracy. That’s why we talk about the Arab Spring, the Puerto Rican Summer with a Caribbean taste and whatnot but this is a struggle for radical democracy and it should be everywhere. Cause otherwise—they will keep winning and nobody will be safe.
The good news is we have the momentum. People have the power. This is democracy in practice. This is sovereignty in practice. This is decolonization in practice because, at the end of the day, colonialism is also about not identifying yourself as a human being capable of transforming the world, right? So if you’re a colonial subject you think you cannot change the world, etc. But here we as a people we toppled a fucking government. So hey, we can do this. This is self-determination.
On Tuesday, July 9, eleven pages of encrypted messages between Rosselló and high-ranking officials were released. Thousands of Puerto Ricans filled the streets in San Juan. On Saturday, the Center for Investigative Journalism released nearly 900 additional pages of leaked documents, reiterating what Puerto Ricans already know from colonial rule, disaster capitalism, neoliberalism, and repression of popular uprising: the ruling elite of the Island have no regard for the life and dignity of Puerto Ricans. Shortly before midnight on July 24th, Governor Ricky Rosselló announced his resignation (scheduled for August 2nd). Inspired by the Arab Spring and other uprisings, sectors of the mobilizations have since increased their demands, calling for further resignations and envisioning a reorganization of Puerto Rican society along “anti-chat” lines (discussed below) and beyond. On July 25th, Science for the People’s Puerto Rico Working Group (Science for Puerto Rico) sat down with two members of the coalition JunteGente to talk about the popular uprising, its significance, next steps, and what we can do from outside Puerto Rico to support this historic moment and its escalating demands. Bernat Tort is a Philosophy of Science professor and a performance artist. JuanCarlos “Juanqui” Rivera Ramos is a sociologist and activist from San Juan. Their science activism focuses on popularizing scientific ideas while fighting against pseudoscience and the oppressive uses of science. Both are active organizers in JunteGente. Founded in 2018, JunteGente is a space for the convening of community organizations working against austerity, neoliberalIsm, and disaster capitalism towards a just, sustainable and solidary Puerto Rico. Their work is motivated by the question: what can we do together that we cannot do alone? As Bernat describes, “it is a gathering to think of the country we want, like a leftist wish-list. One of our aims is to mobilize in order to be prepared for moments of uprising precisely like the one we are living. When these openings occur, we want to be prepared to mobilize towards realizing our ideas.”
Science for the People: Congratulations on Rick Rosselló’s resignation announcement last night after 14 days of continuous protesting. What was it like to receive that news, shortly before midnight? I imagine you are both sleep-deprived! What did the streets look and feel like last night in Viejo San Juan? Bernat: Yesterday was Juanqui’s birthday so we really upped the celebration. Now every meeting with friends is a political meeting. Everyone is pumped about what we’re going to do afterward, with ideas of where we are going to go from here. At around 10 or 11 pm I went home, thinking it wasn’t going to happen. When I get home, I hear honking on the streets. I say “Shit! He did it!” and I started watching the announcement on TV. I got in the car with my partner and we went straight to Old San Juan. We were in a traffic jam of people honking their cars with the Puerto Rican flags all over and people running through the streets. It was the feeling that people got used to the fact that the streets are ours. People were walking in the middle of the main highways as if it were normal because we had non-stop protesting for two weeks. When we got to Old San Juan, people were singing and chanting. Everyone was happy and congratulating one another. It was a very festive feeling of true accomplishment. It was beautiful. We got back home at around 4 am. Juanqui: You know, yesterday was a very strange day because the news outlets had announced that the Governor was going to resign and deliver a message to the people before noon. This was not just rumors but the main newspapers began to announce this. Outlets in the US were also saying this. Everyone was expecting the Governor to resign before noon. There was even a press conference convened at 11 am. The international news teams were physically there, waiting for the announcement. Some news even said the governor had left Puerto Rico on a plane the night before. It was a very strange day. We were tense because we thought this was yet another example of “cogernos de pendejos” [take us for fools/idiots]. We thought ‘this is horrible. We’re gonna be MORE mad now and tomorrow we’re gonna fight this even stronger.” Bernat: And actually, they knew [an escalation] was the probable effect because they tripled the number of fuerzas de choque (riot police) in San Juan. They thought “Ok if this guy doesn’t announce something, there is going to be a huge riot.” Juanqui: It was just before midnight that the Governor decided to resign. Once that happened, around 11:55 pm, it was like a permanent echo of yelling, chanting, screaming. The city was alive. People were throwing fireworks and, curiously, this coincided with a perreo combativo. The creativity of the protests have been amazing. Yesterday, in front of La Fortaleza (Governor’s House) and in front of the Cathedral, there was a National Perreo Combativo. I mean the party was amazing. When the Governor resigned, it was like a carnival. July 24/25 will be definitely be remembered. Actually, July 25 is already an important day for us because of the US Invasion and the foundation of the Estado Liberal Asociado beginning in 1952. July 25 also marks the anniversary of the police assassination in 1978 of two young independentista militants in Cerro Maravilla, in the mountains of Puerto Rico. They were set-up by the police and killed. The fact Ricky resigned on July 24th and 25th is interesting because it gives another layer of symbolism and meaning to popular struggle in Puerto Rico.
Science for the People: Before discussing next steps the causes of the protests. News outlets in the US had a hard time explaining the causes and timing of these protests in a contextualized way. What are the different elements motivating people from different backgrounds to protest? What brought people out of their homes and into the streets for 14 days? Juanqui: There are many answers to this question and honestly we will have to answer it on a continuous basis. That said, the leaked chats synthesized a great deal of the structural violence that Puerto Ricans have experienced at least- at least– since 2006. I say “at least” because we can go back to 1898 or before, of course. But since 2006 we have experienced an economic depression in Puerto Rico which deepened with the 2008 economic crash in the US and around the world. Since then, we have had a demographic hemorrhage. Hundreds of thousands have left the island archipelago. Next year we’re going to begin the Population Census which, in Puerto Rico and in the US, is gathered every 10 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have less than 3 million people at this point. Last decade we were 3.8 million. So we have the economic crisis, followed by the fiscal crisis, followed by the PROMESA Law which forced us to have a Junta. Bernat: The official name is the Fiscal Oversight Board but everyone in Puerto Rico calls it the Fiscal Control Board. In Spanish, la Junta de Control but the official name is the Junta de Supervisión. Juanqui: Right. So this Junta is imposed by Congress, with members that are not elected by anyone. It’s like we have our own IMF– but just for Puerto Rico through Congress. It basically pushes an IMF structural adjustment agenda on Puerto Rico. On top of that, you have two hurricanes: Maria and the incredible corruption in the two parties that have ruled Puerto Rico for the past 70 years. These are all variables that motivated people onto the streets. And then you have the youth and their motivations. First, the sheer number of young people that have participated in the protests is just amazing. These are teenagers. We’re talking about 14 year-olds, 16 year-olds, 18-year olds, as well as, of course, youth in their 20s. These are folks that were born and grew up in a place where they see no future for themselves and where their parents have had to work 2-3 jobs for them to have education, food on the table, and a roof. Some of them don’t even have a roof- some have blue tarps because they lost their home to the Hurricane or they are sharing homes with their relatives. Bernat: The lifestyle of Puerto Ricans in this past decade and a half has been transformed. And for those growing up in Puerto Rico, there is just a different consciousness. Even those who have been doing political work for a long time are finding that this moment is a revelation.
Juanqui: If someone tells you that they know what is happening, they are lying to you. If someone tells you that there is someone leading this process, that there is an organization leading the mobilizations, they are also lying to you. We are all trying to understand what’s happening even as we are actively participating. That’s one aspect. Then you have communications. It’s true that people are suffering economically but most people have access to cell phones and they are informed in their own way, through their own mechanisms of communication. Honestly, that is a very important aspect of the mobilization.
Bernat: I mean— the meme production! The number of memes that have been produced is absurd. Juanqui: Our lack of political representation means that our popular representatives are often our musicians, social leaders, media personalities, etc. I don’t know about other societies but here popular influencers have a massive symbolic capital. I’m not even talking about very famous people like Ricky Martin who were very involved as well. I’m talking about people like Rey Charlie– someone who all of a sudden became a leader of los barrios. This is a guy who mobilized thousands of motorcyclists from the working-class barrios, from the projects. Did you see this? I’m talking about thousands of motorcycles in the night rumbling. Bernat: —like four thousand motorcycles! When I saw the image I said, “holy shit we have a cavalry!” Last Wednesday, July 17th, we were having a political meeting in one of the plazas. Suddenly we see people running away from tear gas, and some 50 motorcycles going towards the tear gas. We were like “Hell yeah, ok these people got our back”. Juanqui: So, this was a popular rebellion full of creativity, democratic, and without a single death. The police shot a ton of rubber bullets and there were injuries but there was not one recorded death. Bernat: But back to context because it was one thing after another. In 2009, under Governor Luis Fortuño Law 7 was the first hard blow to the working class. It was a law that permitted, under a fiscal state of emergency, mass lay-offs of career government employees who until that day had known job security. We’re talking about 35,000 families who were suddenly facing unemployment. In some families, both parents were government employees. That started a huge migration. Families faced the real roughness of the inability to pay rent and utilities– there was a spike in utilities, in particular, electricity. That was the context BEFORE Promesa. So when you get PROMESA it’s like “Oh Cmon”. The austerity measures included pensions, healthcare plans, the university budget that got cut in half, the closing of schools, the passing of a $4.25 minimum wage. So when Juanqui says these kids were born in a country with no future, it’s in a literal sense. They’re not going to have free and quality education like the UPR has the potential to provide, they’re not going to have well-paying jobs. Law after law was engineering Puerto Rico to be a service society for tourism, millionaires, and tax evaders. Law 20 and 22 are designed to attract millionaires to come and establish their businesses here. As long as they create at least two jobs and live here for six months, they gain access to this fiscal paradise. Law 20 and 22 were both passed in 2012 under Governor Luis Fortuño. Bernat: And it’s about more than being poor. Four generations ago, people were poor but there was some social mobility through public education, etc. This is a generation that knows they’re going to be worse off than their parents. And their parents are impoverished and losing whatever labor conditions and job security they had. Those are the kids we’re talking about. Those are the kids on the streets. Juanqui: It’s very important to understand the way these laws were experienced and lived. People started to see all these billionaires moving into Puerto Rico–mostly white Americans buying a lot of land, amassing properties, and gentrifying working-class neighborhoods including via AirBnB like these barrios are some tourist commune.
Bernat: We sustained the weight of all this. So what was the breaking point? In what sense were the chats the straw that broke the camel’s back? People in Puerto Rico are so used to corruption– during elections, we would argue, “Hey, why vote for these people who are from the party of members arrested for corruption?”. They reply, “well but at least they do things…they spread around the crumbs”. What the chat revealed is that not only are these politicians corrupt, they are morally corrupt. I think there was a lot of moral outcry in the sense that it was against the dignity of Puerto Ricans. What do I mean? An example was when they said “cogemos de pendejo hasta los nuestros” ….which means “we fool even our own” although “fool” doesn’t begin to capture the strength of the word pendejo. Another chat message said “I see the future for Puerto Rico. It’s beautiful- it has no Puerto Ricans”.
The beauty of the chat was that it offended everyone. There was misogyny, violence against women, violence against obesity, homophobia, disdain for the dead. That went right into the heart of Puerto Ricans. You don’t fuck with our dead. People who had to bury their own dead during Maria, some had been silent because they said ‘well, the whole country was under strain, it was a disaster’. But they carried that hurt. When the chats were published they said, “Ok, this is too much”. Science for the People: That said, there has been no shortage of outrageous moments in Puerto Rico even just in the past few months. What factors led to sustained protesting and what can be learned from them? Bernat: There is a lot of contingency surrounding future planning because, as Juanqui said, there were no specific leaders. Of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the effect of sustained protests for years. For example, one of the demands being called for by some organizations is amnesty for all the protestors since the PROMESA protests began. The memes are saying: “you see? the pelús [hairy communists] were right! Everything they protested for was right. It’s all there in the chat– now you know it’s true and that it wasn’t just leftist paranoia”. So we cannot underestimate that effect of sustained protests for years. To give you one example, the Colectiva Feminista had a plantón in December 2018. They said, “we’re gonna sit here in front of Fortaleza [the Governor’s Mansion] and we’re not going to move until you declare a state of emergency for gender-based violence”. Even though it didn’t work in terms of beginning a dialogue with the government, it did get coverage in the news and people all over started speaking about feminicide. There was a very horrible case of a teenager who lit his ex-girlfriend on fire. He poured gasoline on her and well, suddenly this time it became a national topic. The same thing happened with the pensions and with the dead bodies movement. These movements have been doing very important and untiring work and now their demands are part of peoples’ vocabulary. You cannot underestimate that bricklaying work. But that’s not to say this is the reason why these particular chats led to unending protest for two weeks. I have no answer. We’re all just as surprised as you are. We’re living that history but we’re trying to understand it just as you are. Juanqui: There’s another thing. This may sound stupid but it’s the summer. Most people are working but the youth are out of school. I say most people are working but it doesn’t mean they have formal jobs. They work in the informal economy and many people have several jobs para ganarse la vida. On the other hand, some of these jobs, although precarious, are more flexible. The Center for Investigative Journalism did a great job because they didn’t just publish the leaked chats to people and media outlets, they also wrote documents analyzing the chats. Every day you had new material analyzing different aspects of the chats. Jay Fonseca is another figure that, while not a radical or intellectual, is a figure some people listen to on the radio and every day he reported on a different piece of the chat. You have to understand that this was a really fun struggle. There is just something about el goce [the joy] that has been absolutely incredible! I mean, las convocatorias [calls to action]! This is what I mean when I say that this was not planned. People were literally inventing convocatorias like “tomorrow we’re gonna be in perreo militante!” —and people just went. Organizing an action was as easy as making a social media post and that’s it. Mira, our biggest mobilization EVER in Puerto Rican history: it was convened by some person and folks just ran with it. There were six different posters made for the same activity. We didn’t even know the route of the march. Nobody knew cómo carajo we were marching but it worked! It’s really interesting. But it all has to do with el goce. And there are lots of examples like this: one action was to do yoga in front of La Fortaleza at 6am. Hundreds of men, women, and children doing yoga to protest! They also did Rogativas. La Rogativa is a legend based on a supposed attack on the British in the 18th century. In the legend, men, women, and children carried torches and scared away the British. In reality, in history, the attack was led by cimarrones who lived on the coast. But anyhow, people protested in all forms–from yoga to torch marches.
Bernat: To give you another example of how something outrageously offensive was turned into something positive: as you know, in the chats they called Melissa Mark-Viverito a whore. Suddenly there were lots of women with “PUTA” written on their bodies, going naked to the protests, with the PR flag painted on their body. There was a convening of strippers saying: Somos putas pero no corruptas (we are whores but not thieves) and they marched with their stripper clothes. It was beautiful. This was the creation of what Juanqui has called ‘the anti-chat’. The chat was the negative iteration of all these claims and people transformed their meaning via appropriations into the anti-chat, which is the positive and powerful appropriation of all the chats saying “we are here and you do not represent us”. Juanqui: The streets reflected the diversity of our bodies, sexualities, gender identities, and even our ideas. To define the “dominant ideology” of this movement is very difficult. Maybe we can look towards the “anti-chat” to elaborate a platform of the people. Oh, you hate the poor? Well, carajo, yeah we’re poor and we need a political program that can help transform this reality and the conditions that created poverty in the first place. Oh, you hate fat people? Fat people organized and marched with shirts that read: “este gordito tu no lo coges de pendejo” and “éste no es el gordo que te perdonó.” That creativity is part of the reason the marches were sustained, although in a larger sense it really is a mystery how this all played out. We’re all still trying to understand while at the same time being involved in the everyday struggles because that’s where we have to be. You have to be there not just to understand but to have a political effect.
Science for the People:What are the most significant elements in the nearly 900 pages of leaked documents?
Bernat: Two chat messages in particular sum up the others pretty well. The first one is: “we foresee a beautiful future for Puerto Rico, one without Puerto Ricans,” and the other is “cogemos de pendejos hasta los nuestros” [we fool even our own].
Juanqui: There’s another one where the Governor is making fun of poverty; of poor houses that were torn down by the hurricane. That is crucial. One that topped the glass was the mockery of the dead that said “don’t we have some cadavers we can toss to our vultures?” When they fuck with our dead, people really feel it. On the streets we try to ask people “Why brought you out here?” and many would say they have dead family and they’re making fun of our dead. They use the hurricane financial aid for their own political campaigns. Dignity has a lot to do with the power of this battle.
Bernat: Look at this meme. It says “our 4645 deads can rest in peace”. As if to say, “ok we did it. Now you can rest in peace because we kicked this bastard out.”
Juanqui: When Trump came to Puerto Rico after the Hurricane, the Governor told Trump that we had only 16 deaths. Trump said, ‘ah this isn’t a tragedy; Katrina was a tragedy’. Then came the Harvard study, where that number, 4645, comes from. Then, the government asked for a different study, and they came up with half of that number. Then the Harvard study said they had been very conservative in their estimate. In any case, the number that stayed was 4645 and you could see it everywhere in the protests: banners, graffiti, 4645 everywhere.
Bernat: Maybe it didn’t get much international attention, but one of the most beautiful protests after Maria, involved people asking others to bring shoes of the dead ones to the Capitol buildings, in order to get 4645 shoe pairs. They wanted to collect their stories of the dead so they started doing interviews. It was very powerful. People really felt it. It was the most beautiful symbolic political protests after Maria.
Juanqui: The government never officially did anything. They didn’t even recognize the number of deaths. They didn’t make a memorial, a tribute, nothing, nada, nothing.
Bernat: Something important to understand that you hear people saying frequently is, “yeah, I got mad about the chat but it’s not about the chat”. People have been very quick in making the jump from being offended by “puta” to saying “we have real problems. It’s not that you called me poor, it’s that I *am* poor, and it’s a systematic issue of mismanagement of funds.”
There’s a very famous, telling set of photographs side by side. One is during Hurricane Maria in Curacao, one of the hardest-hit towns, with people who spray-painted on the street “we need water- we are dying of thirst- HELP” so that helicopters could see them and bring water. Next to this image is another image of thousands of boxes of bottled water that was brought here via help from the diaspora and other international efforts. They had it in an empty, they never delivered them— purposely, so that people would go out and buy water. Everyone has seen those images, everyone knows.
I know that Jean Baudrillard didn’t mean it this way when he said ‘the transparency of evil’ but here very literally evil was transparent. It was like “holy shit these people care NOTHING about us.”
Science for the People: Before diving into the uprising’s concrete demands, what does the organizational landscape look like? Who are some of the organized actors involved?
Bernat: Jornada: Se Acabaron las Promesas (sort of our black bloc in Puerto Rico);Colectiva Feminista; CAMs- Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (they’re huge because they don’t have a center, they’re decentralized, with different representations); some people from the independence party; IDEBAJO-Iniciativa De Ecodesarrollo De Bahia De Jobos (a regional community initiative especially active in the south around energy issues- they’re also the main organizers against the dumping of the ashes in the Bahía area); militant lawyers (who were on the streets 24/7 against police brutality and repression), Güakiá (the agro-ecological group that hosted your solidarity brigade last summer); Auditoría YA- Frente Amplio por la Auditoría de la Deuda (the debt auditing effort); Federación de Maestros; CasaPueblo; UTIER (the electricity union), and several others…
Science for the People: Ahora sí, what were the concrete demands of the protests and how they coalesce? What political openings did those demands create? Are there demands that were left out or that you personally think would have been important to include?
Bernat: Beyond the Rosello resign, a popular one is “Ricky, renuncia y llévate a la Junta” (‘Ricky, resign and take the Oversight Committee with you’). The demands [speak to] a broader problem: we are living in an undemocratic and corrupt [society] by design. The PROMESA law has provisions that state committee members can be legally bribed. They can get benefits from doing different deals with different institutions. It’s legalized corruption. El colmo del descaro.
What some people are discussing is that if someone from Ricky’s own party substitutes him, nothing really changes. The changes we favor include electoral reform, that could go in the direction of referendos recursatorios to facilitate kicking someone out. We could also have two cycles of elections, allowing coalitions of minority parties so they can negotiate a shared government. Proportional voting as well, if a party gets 20% of the vote, they get 20% of the government and so on.
Science for the People: Are these popular demands? How much support do these and other demands have?
Bernat: The organizations we’ve been working with all agree to most of these demands. Today begins the hardest part of the organizing. Regarding elections, there are also demands to audit the debt, repeal the PROMESA law, and abolishing the Junta. There are also demands around the gender-violence emergency. There are very high numbers and there’s a high correlation between economic depression and gender violence. If the man is constructed under machismo as being the bread-winner and there are no jobs, you’re no longer a man. This correlation has been studied; when economic depression comes, a way of expressing masculinity is by submitting the other to your power. There’s a huge gender-based emergency in Puerto Rico.
Another demand is to repeal the new labor reform, which enables employers to hire employees for a “trial period” of six months after which they can lay you off without any reason, benefits or compensation. This was one of the many neoliberal laws that were passed to supposedly revive the economy. One of the demands is to regain job security and to strengthen unions.
The more radical groups are saying- and we agree- that even if it cannot happen now, we should at least throw the idea out there to create asambleas del pueblo, popular assemblies. This generation knows that they have political power. If we reach a critical mass, we can turn government towards us and negotiate. If people start popular assemblies, we can start thinking “can we do a provisional government?” “Can we do a transitional government?” Because we know it’s not enough that he resigns. We have to stop every contract that this corrupt government has made, and that we already know are illegal. Not only that, we need to make those people pay. We need to bring criminal charges against them and restitute all that money they’ve stolen. One of the demands is to restitute that money back to the public books, las arcas publicas.
Juanqui: We have experienced a democratization process. We are talking of maybe a million people who took action or somehow participated throughout Puerto Rico. Imagine the proportions, almost 1 in 3 people. How can we keep this democratization process going? That’s where JunteGente wants to put its energy. We have to do that through direct democracy, like the assemblies, but also in making representative democratic processes more democratic and transparent. Pushing for those reforms while trying to expand those non-reformist reforms…
Science for the People: What about the status question? From the outside, it seems like the status question didn’t play a central role. Is that accurate? Juanqui: that is totally accurate and it’s integral to many people’s political work including ours as JunteGente . The status question has been the black hole of radical politics in Puerto Rico. Our colonial relation to the United States is obviously crucial to our political context. That is crucial to recognize and not diminish that it but, as you just said, these protests were not about the status question. They were an intersectional popular uprising about race, class, gender, our bodies. Even though, yes, the Puerto Rican flag was everywhere in all its colors: the Resistance flag, the rainbow colors, the traditional colors, and so on. Bernat: I think it [the non-centrality of the status question] was not instinctive or spontaneous but rather there was a conscious move towards that. The first big manifestation on Monday, July 8th was from the Capitol to the Governor’s Mansion. It was convened by Victoria Ciudadana, which is a new party for social justice that has no official position on the status question. In doing so, it is trying to disassociate radical politics from the status question because, as Juanqui says, there’s been a collapse between the independent movement and leftist politics as if they were the same thing—-which they’re not. There are very conservative people who are pro-Independence and by doing that collapse we are preventing ourselves from tapping into radical people who are pro-statehood or have other status ideologies. It is a black hole in the sense that radical social justice movements cannot grow beyond the traditional nationalist Left because of that collapse. So this party has been key in separating those aspects. Even though they were the convening voice in that specific manifestation, they did not bring ANY of their own party flags. They did not do a political hearing. When I arrived I saw about six flags of the independence party and my first reaction was: why do they do this? They did not convene it. This is a movement of the people. And people called them out, signaled it…and for the following manifestation, no one brought their flags. The organizations reached a consensus that this was simply not the time to bring out your organization flags. It was a march of the Puerto Rican people and I think that was KEY to your question of why people kept coming. This was different. Juanqui: Victoria Ciudadana is just beginning. They’re not massive. Over the past decade, there have been different political attempts to go beyond the status question around social justice and bi-partisanism (which is actually a tri-partisanism) in which all parties are defined by their status position regarding the US. The problem with that is that people align according to status question and forget about all the policies that work against it. One of the things we try to change is precisely the use of terms. For example, “soberanía”: the independence movement uses the term soberanÍa. We try to say “ok but let’s look at the different kinds of soberanías: food sovereignty, soberanías del pueblo, bodily sovereignty, energy sovereignty, etc. This allows people, regardless of where they stand on the status question, to relate to food sovereignty: “I want to grow my own food, I want my community to be able to have food and not need to depend on a chain”. Likewise to be able to relate to the feminist movement based on discourses of bodily sovereignty, reproductive justice, sexual sovereignty, the right to safe abortions, etc. What’s happening now is the people’s sovereignty: regardless if we are a colony or not, this is popular sovereignty. Yes, under US rule but we are making radical transformations even under the current circumstances. Part of the discourse is “oh first we have to be independent and then we can do other things”. People are tired of waiting.
In Colombia, the herbicide glyphosate is once again making headlines after right-wing President Iván Duque urged Congress to overturn a 2015 ban on aerial fumigations intended to eradicate coca cultivations. This comes as the Duque administration seeks to back-out of the 2016 Peace Agreement by objecting to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a central component of the Agreements. While there is no scientific consensus on the health effects of glyphosate fumigations, contradictory results in major studies must lead us to employ the cautionary principle. By arguing that glyphosate is safe and effective, Duque and his allies are further justifying their de-facto annulment of the historic 2016 Peace Agreement, specifically points I and IV on land reform and illicit crop substitution respectively. It is important to engage with the health-based debate while maintaining sight of the larger structural issues, namely land reform.
Glyphosate in Colombia
Since 1978, Colombia has used glyphosate in its aerial fumigations. Between 1999 and 2015 over 1,800,000 hectares were sprayed with the herbicide to kill illicit crops, beginning with marihuana and transitioning to coca and poppy. Glyphosate fumigations of coca cultivations were domestically framed as a means of eliminating an important revenue stream for the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). For years, campesino communities protested the criminalization of coca and the use of glyphosate, linking the latter to damaging health effects, spoiled agricultural crops, and contaminated water sources. After decades of organized strikes and mobilizations, the Colombian government finally announced in 2015, during the Peace Negotiations, that it would at last ban the use of glyphosate for aerial spraying, citing health concerns. Following pressure from the US, in 2016 it resumed the use of glyphosate, this time using drones rather than helicopters and planes.
Glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, was patented by Monsanto in 1970 and is the active ingredient in Roundup. International regulatory bodies have published conflicting results regarding its health impacts. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has described glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” pointing to ““convincing evidence that glyphosate (…) can cause cancer in laboratory animals.” Specifically, recent studies have shown a compelling link between exposures to Glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) and increased risk for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL, a cancer of the lymphatic tissue). Alejandro Gaviria, a former Minister of Health, has linked the fumigations to “a high probability of infant mortality increases, dermatological and respiratory problems, and possible interference with embryonic development”.
Ineffective and Counterproductive Policy
Even if glyphosate were safe, fumigations in Colombia and beyond are ineffective and counterproductive. From Afghanistan to Vietnam, aerial fumigations have more often been used as commercial opportunities or chemical and agricultural warfare than effective policy. In Colombia’s Valle del Guamuez, rural areas were founded with names like Arenosa (“The Sandy”) after fumigations dried up the land. Communities learn to adapt their coca farming to fumigations but they give up on agricultural crops. Fumigations further aggravate internal displacement in a country with the second highest IDP (internally displaced persons) population in the world. Fumigations eradicate farming communities, not coca cultivation.
We do not yet know the results of the Congressional debate on the use of glyphosate. While there were more speakers in favor of upholding the current glyphosate ban, we know that the administration of Iván Duque is under significant pressure from the US.
The Trump administration has been “seriously considered designating Colombia as a country that has failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements” unless coca cultivations change their course. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had testified to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations regarding Colombia, stating, “what we’ve said is you have to get back to allowing the spraying of these fields, the destruction of the fields.” Earlier, in 2014, the State Department had complained about protests against fumigations: “National level protests blocking access roads and inhibiting movement were a major hindrance to manual eradication’s ability to operate in major coca growing regions, and also bedeviled aerial eradication operations.” But perhaps the bluntest explanation came from former US Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, a top counternarcotics official at the State Department for the Trump administration. Collective action and road-blocking, he observed, were not a problem during aerial fumigations. “You cannot protest from the ground an airplane that is flying over a coca field and killing the coca from the air”…
The renewed debate around glyphosate is particularly disturbing because Colombia has tested, proven, and agreed-upon alternatives. The 2016 Peace Agreement’s points I and IV address Land Reform and Crop Substitution respectively. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that voluntary crop substitution programs, the basis of the Fourth Point, are overwhelmingly more effective than fumigations and other forms of forced eradication. Their report affirms that just 0.6% of coca cultivations are re-planted under voluntary crop substitution programs while, under forced eradication programs, 30% of crops are re-planted in the first three months and over 50% of crops are re-planted within the year. The high rates of re-cultivation are the result of a policy that does not address the basic need for a stable sustenance– the reason families cultivate coca.
Beyond crop substitution, Colombia needs land reform. Nearly seventy percent of the country’s productive land is concentrated in 0.4 percent of agricultural landholdings, Oxfam reports. As long as this reality holds, no form of coca eradication has a chance of succeeding. We can and should debate about glyphosate without losing sight of the more central, historic debate in Colombia.