In the past few weeks Venezuela has been shook by violent protests, some say violent repression of peaceful protests. The central notion in every narrative about Venezuela in the past week is violence, so what are the roots of this violence?

Let’s role things back a bit here. When Chavez first assumed the office of president in 1998, the Venezuelan Republic, although lavished with the greatest petroleum reserves on earth, was unable to  offer to half of its people adequate living conditions.

In 1997, the percentage of Venezuelans living under the poverty line was 67%. Thanks to the economic reforms of the Bolivarian Revolution, the percentage was 24.7 in 2011.

Venezuela Protests 2014 (2)

Chavez was elected on the “radical” idea that maybe the wealth generated by the exploitation of natural resources such as petroleum should be more equally redistributed between all walks of Venezuelan society. Thus Chavez launched a campaign to put the profits of the oil to work (the over-dependence of the Bolivarian regime on oil is a valid point of criticism) for the marginalized classes of society, to make sure that the majority of Venezuelans would be lifted out of poverty and the economics of strict subsistence when wealth was surrounding them. Chavez gave a voice to these disenfranchised sections of Venezuelan society.

Chavez created an economic revolution; his administration put full force in breaking down the barriers of social inequality in Venezuela, using the profits of the money-making oil industry to bring electricity and running water to the slums of Caracas and offering universal healthcare to all Venezuelans. Again, extremely “radical” ideas.

In 2002 the Chavez administration decided to take their democratization of the Venezuelan economy to another level through the complete nationalization of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). This put an end to the concentration of the greatest source of wealth in Venezuela in the hands of a few.

Venezuela Protests 2014 (11)

It goes without saying that those who had benefited from the old way of things were not inclined to accept the coming changes. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the attempt of the Venezuelan government to implement a redistribution of agricultural land in the country.

75-80% of all land in Venezuela was owned by 5% of the population and 60% of all agricultural land was owned by 2%. The violence to repress the demands of landless campesinos had already claimed 300 lives nation-wide but this wasn’t worthy enough to be news.

Thus in 2002, the business community, big oil multinationals, right-wing media elite and the corporate magnates of Venezuela gave Pedro Carmona, president of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, the presidency on a silver platter, ousting Chavez, despite the fact that he had been duly elected. The Caracas stock exchange hit record levels, all was well…

Little did they expect that 48 hours later, Venezuelans of all walks of life would descended upon the American Embassy where Chavez was held prisoner and bring him back to Miraflores, the presidential palace. Since the coup attempt didn’t work out exactly in the favor of the Venezuelan oligarchy, they decided to do what they do best start an economic war against the Bolivarian regime.

Back to the current context of unrest in Venezuela. The narrative this time is the same: the communist thugs of Chavez and company are forcing an economic dictatorship on the people of Venezuela and to defend their hold on the Venezuelan economy they employ violence.

But who are really the violent ones in this situation? Who has used violence since the time of colonial expansion in Venezuela, exploiting the indigenous population, the poor immigrating farmers, depriving them of their land, racking-in the big profits and letting the rest subsist with what’s left? Surely the same that are the instigators of the violence now.

Venezuela Protests 2014 (8)

Maduro’s project to prevent Venezuelan companies from making more than 30% profit on any product on the market is directly linked to a new chapter of this economic war that has been waged by certain companies within Venezuelan society that have decided to use inflation as a political weapon. But nothing is new here, it’s just part of the never ending struggle for economic democracy aka real democracy and that’s exactly what this so-called revolution (it’s a counter-revolution) wants to prevent.

What is new and despicable in many ways is the fact that this economic war against the Venezuelan people is being carried out under the auspices of a student strike. Here is neo-liberal appropriation at its best: use the tactic that was used by left-wing movements in Chile and here in Quebec as the vehicle for a neo-liberal economic agenda. It’s hard to find the words to express how insulted I am to hear people insinuate that the Quebec or Chilean student strikes and the current Venezuelan student protest are in any way the same thing.

In conclusion, this is a war for democracy as many of the Venezuelan opposition say. This is war for economic democracy. If democracy means that you are entitled to the idea that you have the right to play a role in society, but that right never becomes anything else than symbolic then one’s relationship with democracy is but a platonic love. Be it said also to Leopoldo Lopez, the hero of this media sham, when you promote coups such as the one in 2002 against a democratically elected government, it’s hard to have any credibility when you call for more democracy.

A luta continua!

* photos by Joe Scarangella,

It was new year’s eve 1994, through the rainforest that covers the majority of the Chiapas region of south western Mexico, a movement under the name of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) was in its embryonic stage. In 1984, thirty years ago, another movement was also was forming, uniting landless peasants from throughout Brazil, occupying fazendas (large properties owned by the affluent Brazilian landowners), setting-up up cooperative farms and building community gardens which allowed the resilient communities to be self-sufficient in many ways.

These two movements have been under the stoplight, capturing the international media’s attention through a combination of headline catching actions and an intelligent media blueprint. But the question of land reform is of utmost importance especially within an age of relentless inequality and climate change. Answers to some of the most important interrogations on the limits of capitalism and sensible solutions to the threat of climate change are enclosed within this quintessential question of land ownership.

zapatista sign

Since the start of time, the problematic of land ownership has always been central to the development of human societies. The struggle between the ‘owners’ of land and the ‘dispossessed’ was at the origin of the fall of the Roman Republic (see Lex Sempronia Agraria). Many historians also link the ultimate fall of the Roman Empire to the over concentration of wealth and power within the hands of a landed elite.

Such a string of events is far from being relative to political development within Latium. In many ways land control has influenced the trajectory of societal development throughout the world.

The development of capitalism as we know it, is inherently linked to the development of a coercive notion of private property, where private property is hereditary. In this skewed ideological development, private has become linked to the notion of freedom.

This system of ownership of the land is the foundation of every caste system within the history of mankind, the distinction between those that have and the have-nots, the dispossessed. Parallel to this ‘land-grab’ is a reaction of resistance of the landless peasants, of the serfs, of indigenous communities against the landed elite, the power structure or the colonial state.

The development of neo-liberal capitalism has altered in many ways the structure of this relationship. Two elements have been the motors behind these changes: first of all the construction of the insane notion of the ‘corporate individual’ and on the other hand the continued erosion of regulations.

Corporations now, in many ways, are the new landed elite and the biggest obstacles on the road to fighting climate change. But also tied to the question of the corporate ownership of land is the corporate ownership of natural resources and the problem of redistribution of the wealth generated by the extraction of those same natural resources. Also included within the problematic of land ownership is the growing crisis of food security and frantic rise in food prices throughout the world.

In the end, the corporate land-grab is an essential question in the burgeoning of the 21st century. Movements such as the EZLN and Sem Terra have shown guidance in offering an alternative perspective with regards to the way we conceive the ownership of land, the role of land within our societies and the importance of communal and local agriculture. Both movements have understood one important thing: that climate deregulation is a direct consequence of the deregulation of the world’s markets and no solution will be found to counter climate change within this system of wild, wild, west capitalism.

On January 1st 1994, EZLN took up arms against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which took away from the Mexican people their undeniable right to the land underneath their feet. This right to the land was the most important accomplishment of the Mexican Revolution and had since been enshrined in the Mexican constitution.

The revolt of the Zapatistas was directly against this globalized system of dispossession of small farmers and indigenous communities on one hand and the subsequent repossession of that land by private interests on the other. Those interests were motivated by  making the land ‘profitable’, by any means necessary. This is the attitude that turned the greatest delta in the world (the delta of Niger) into a massive oil spill.

brazil sem terra
The Sem Terra in Brazil (image

The Brazilian Sem Terra sprouted out of the inhumane conditions that landless peasants were facing within Brazil, wandering from one agricultural tyrant to another on a regular basis, enslaved by one agro-alimentary multinational after another. The Sem Terra movement understood that the root of inequality is this disproportionate gap between those that control the land and those that work the land. The only way to counter this was to create communities in which each man had his plot of land to cultivate to provide for the wellbeing of his family without an inch of that land being privately owned.

This communal vision of land ownership thus entails the construction of an inclusive and participatory decision making system. Not only did these alternative visions of land ownership empower the ‘dispossessed’ and enable the development and reproduction of traditional modes of agricultural protection (read here biological and respectful of the environment), it also planted the seeds of a stronger strain of democracy.

Both movements know that land is power, the power to determine the future of generations, to draw the outlines of a distinct society, the power to hold the keys to a better world. In this age of globalized free-trade agreements, that relentlessly breakdown the ‘barriers to trade’ with the purpose of ‘opening up’ new markets such as the markets of land and of natural resources, in an age of growing inequality and destabilizing climate deregulation, the seeds have been sown, amidst the tempest, for an alternative future.

In one of the most famous Sem Terra occupations in July of 1996, thousands of landless peasants occupied one of the most important fazendas in Brazil-which they still occupy to this day and have turned it into one of the most important agricultural communes in the world. First thing they did once they had occupied the fazenda was to take down the Brazilian flag and put the red one of the MST with words that read “The struggle for all.”

So, it’s official, Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is now Pope Francis. You probably already know this just as you probably already know he likes to ride the bus, is virulently opposed to same-sex marriage and may have been involved in a few kidnappings back in the day.

Analysis of just what this selection of pontiff means, sordid details from his past and even a few humourous memes (decent, but nowhere near as good as all the Palpatine ones that came with the previous pontificate) spread as quickly yesterday as the news of his election itself. Before the white smoke had cleared the sky around the Vatican chimney, we were starting to get a picture of who this new pope was and what kind of pope he may be.

So, is this a change in the right direction or are the world’s catholics and the rest who pay attention to the Holy See in for more of what they got from Benedict XVI? Well, let’s have a look…

The Good

bergoglio subwayAlways good to start positive. Let’s see, he likes to ride the bus and live in a simple apartment. Yes, up until now, he’s forgone free limo rides and mansions offered to him in favour of slumming it with the rest of us. Good, but I have a feeling that will change. I doubt Vatican security will let him shun the pope-mobile, and it’s pretty much established that he won’t be living in an apartment from now on.

He’s also known to fight for the poor. He’s from the Jesuit order, known for speaking up for social justice and, as many have pointed out, choosing a name to evoke St-Francis Assisi emphasizes his connection with the poor. He’s also from Latin America, which shows the Church is willing to move away from its Europeans only image at the very top.

Now to compare. Benedict had a keen interest in the environment and did criticize economic policies that hurt the poor. So that’s two good points to one in favour of the previous pontiff, but then if you factor in that Ratzinger was German, definitely a part of the Europe club, they come out even.

The Bad

argentina gay rights

While the last pope clearly wasn’t a champion of gay rights or women in the clergy, his regressive attitude came out mainly in the form of doctrinal announcements. The new guy, on the other hand, made some pretty nasty comments that are hard to top on the cringe-worthy scale.

While actively fighting against Argentina’s efforts to legalize same-sex marriage (which passed, by the way), Cardinal Bergoglio said:

“Let’s not be naive, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; (marriage equality) is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

He also went on to call gay parents adopting children a “form of discrimination against children.” I couldn’t find any statement by him on child sex abuse by the clergy, let alone him labelling it as a form of discrimination against children.

I also couldn’t find a statement by him about women or contraception. Even though his predecessor said many things on these subjects, the sheer virulence of Bergoglio’s comments on homosexuality ties him, in my book, with Ratzinger on the anti-progressive scale.

The Ugly

pope dictator
Pope Francis (left) and Argentinian dictator Jorge Rafael Videla

And I mean ugly. Turns out that during Argentina’s “dirty wars ” (a period in the late 70s and early 80s where the country was controlled by US-backed dictators) this champion of the poor may have tried to stop two Jesuit priests under his direction who believed in liberation theology from helping the poor in Buenos Ares. When they refused, he stopped protecting them, effectively handing them over to the death squads who kidnapped and tortured them, according to one of the priests who told the Associated Press.

In all fairness, he was also instrumental in their release a few months later. This was supposedly possible because he was close with the military dictatorship.

Until yesterday, a report in the Guardian had Argentinian journalist Horacio Verbitsky claiming that Bergoglio helped hid some of the regime’s political prisoners from human rights observers on his island home with Bergoglio countering that he was hiding them from the regime, despite his Jesuit order publicly endorsing the dictatorship. Verbitsky has since stated that the new pope was not personally concealing the prisoners, though the church was. The original passage is still quoted in Business Insider.

Years later, the Argentinian church apologized for its lack of action during those brutal years while Bergoglio insisted he didn’t know anything about the regime taking babies  from people they killed. A letter from a colonel asking for help says otherwise.

So back to the comparison. Ratzinger was a Hitler Youth, but I’d argue that Bergoglio’s sketchy past was worse, much worse. This is for one key reason : Ratzinger was basically a kid when he was part of the HJ whereas Bergoglio was an adult and a member of the church with power and prominence when he allegedly turned a blind eye to and outright helped a brutal regime.

It’s now clear that the new pope is, at best, the same as the old pope, but if these allegations of what he did during the dirty wars are true, I’d say he’s worse.

This post originally appeared on, republished with permission from the author

The larger than life, fourteen year populist leader of Venezuela Hugo Chavez passed away after a two year bout with cancer last Tuesday. The man who championed himself as a revolutionary and savior of the poor died at the age of 58.

From Pennies

Chavez and his five siblings grew up on their father’s rural teaching salary. With little money and a growing family he soon went to live with his grandparents to try and ease the financial burden. Chavez grew up in a Venezuela ruled by a list of dictators, converting later into a democracy in which the dominant political parties shared power regardless of how Venezuelans voted.

At 17, Chavez joined the military academy with the hopes of playing baseball. An injury kept him from realizing his baseball dreams, but it set in motion his rise to political office. As Venezuela grew increasingly corrupt, Chavez who witnessed the country’s poverty first hand, couldn’t comprehend that despite the country’s vast oil wealth, most Venezuelans had to fight hard just to get by.

In the early 1990’s, Corruption and austerity measures crippled the government with approval ratings below 20%. So, in 1992, Hugo Chavez led a failed coup that resulted in his surrender; however he was allowed to go on national television to inform his comrades to surrender.

During that one minute of airtime he took responsibility for the coup’s failure, the thing is, he did it in a country where no one took responsibility for anything. He served two years in prison only to be released to try and slow his growing popularity.

To President

In 1998 Chavez ran for office for the first time and won with 56% of the vote. He would go on to win three more presidential elections, the last of which he won last October with 54% of total votes. In his first term of two years he traveled the world and won a referendum to change the constitution, laying the foundation in which he hoped to build the country on.

Throughout it all, Chavez never forgot his roots. When he began his first term in 1999, half the population of Venezuela was below the poverty line. Before his last election victory it had dropped from about 50% down to around 30%. More importantly, extreme poverty fell by over 75%.

During his tenure Chavez made a lot of friends and enemies both at home and abroad. At home the poor loved him. He used his country’s vast oil wealth to introduce social programs that include state-run food markets, new public housing, educational programs and free health clinics (he raised health spending from 1% to 7% of GDP alone).

hugoWhat Goes Around, Comes Around

While the poor loved him, the rich despised him. Even though his first term could be considered a centrist administration, the start of the second would change that. Led by wealthy business leader Pedro Carmona, Anti-Chavez military officers supported by the business community (Venezuelan Chambers of Commerce), private media and certain political parties tried to oust him in a coup.

The Coup D’état seemed to work at first. They organized protests in the streets and used it as a screen to overthrow the president. They tried to frame Chavez for violence breaking out in the streets claiming he was using the military to crack down on dissent. It was later revealed it was the coup supporters that were largely responsible for the violence. The coup ultimately failed as the population out in the streets demanded Hugo’s return.

Whenever there is a coup in South America you can be sure that the United States had a part to play. Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama and El-Salvador could attest to that claim. It’s no surprise the US was the first country to recognize the Carmona government, but after it lasted less than 48 hours, the US backtracked. The failed coup against Chavez marked the last known attempt by the United States to undermine the will of a foreign populace.

From that point on, Chavez began to speak out against American Imperialism and started to govern from a more radical leftist position. In 2003 the state took over 51% of the country’s oil industry (which it was planning before the coup attempt). He built up his military readiness in anticipation of an American invasion. He also made friends with America’s enemies, namely Iran, Syria and Libya (the enemy of my enemy is my friend as they say).

hugo-chavez-y-fidel-castroIn the End

From the beginning, Chavez set out to help other leftist governments in Central and South America which now make up the bulk of the continent. He founded the Bank of the South with the help of Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia. The bank is to be an alternative to the IMF and World Bank which have screwed over some of these countries in the past. Unlike the IMF, there are no political conditions to receive funds. In 2007 alone, Chavez gave $8.8 billion to help development in other Latin American countries.

Like I said, Chavez did have his faults. Aside from allying himself with sometimes brutal dictators, he was known to be on the anti-Semitic side. In fact, half of all Jews reportedly left the country during his time in office. Inflation soared at times, hurting the poor above all and the homicide rate rose to among the highest in the world peeking in 2010 as the world’s worst.

He was known as “El Comandante” by his admirers. They called him a revolutionary on par with Che Guevara, Simon Bolivar and Fidel Castro.

What you think of the man might depend on where you live and whether you’re rich or poor. In time, history will decide.

The next time someone asks me if they should travel through South America for four months or more, I will respond with another question: “Are you prepared to lose everything?” Despite bringing along my Macbook Pro, iPod Touch and Canon DSLR Camera, I really felt mentally prepared to lose everything for the sake of world experience. After all, they are just things. I even left my iPhone at home in Canada with the idea that even if they took everything else from me, at least I’d have that. However, despite my preparation, losing stuff sucks!

Below find a tale, not about loss, but about an outstanding couple, a thief, and the power of social media. By the end, it might just restore your faith in humanity, I know it did mine.

First things first: why the hell would I bring all that technology to South America of all places? Well, without this technology I wouldn’t have been able to keep this column on Forget the Box, make a wacky video about Carnaval, take a leading role in the development of the Bolivian Express magazine, write a freelance article about the End of Capitalism in Bolivia, or keep a personal blog as much as I did.

Why the hell would I travel by myself? At least with people you might have more security. Another good question, but I feel that if I wasn’t alone, I wouldn’t have the freedom to meet such incredible people like Damian Martone, the friendly Argentinian graphic designer who allowed me to stay in his apartment for over a week in Buenos Aires through the networking site CouchSurfing or Bruno Beserra, the flight attendant from Brazil who made the video of Carnaval with me and lent me his camera for the rest of my trip.

But all this journalism, travelling and partying can be taxing on the body, so since Carnaval I pledged to limit my drinking and start to run everyday. I kept to my word on the morning of Sunday, March 3rd and hauled myself out of bed at 8 am after a sober Saturday night for my morning run. In my morning drowsiness I accidentally bumped the foot of an Argentinian man sleeping above me in the 10-person dormitory in Salvador, Brazil and woke him up.

“I’m going to Praia do Forte!” he told me confidentially in Spanish as he started to pack his bag. “Cool!” I responded, having been to the nearby beach a few days prior. “There is an amazing, tranquil beach with no people and white sand if you continue walking from the main beach for 10 minutes. You have to go there!” Appearing delighted by the recommendation he agreed to go. I then locked my locker with all my valuables inside of it, took the key and set off on my run.

When I returned 45 minutes later, I saw the Argentinian on the way out, exchanged a friendly “Chow!” and went to unlock my locker. There, I discovered that my MacBook Pro and the Nikon point + shoot digital camera that Bruno had lent me were missing! Fortunately, however, everything else including my passport was there.

Before the embarrassment, disappointment and general bummed out feeling hit, I just felt confused as to how those items were stolen. I always make sure to lock my locker even if it is for a second to go to the bathroom.

Who could have done this!?

Immediately my mind shifted to the friendly Argentinian. He did rush out and he was probably the only person who saw me open my computer on that morning and could have been fast/sneaky enough to nab it, but there was no evidence to prove this. Where’s Dexter when you need justice!?

Justice had a rough start. At the police station nearby, the casually dressed policeman did not speak a word of English. Less than three words into my explanation in Portuguese (slow and choppy, but I know it made sense) the officer wrote “Pelourinho” (the name for the historic centre) on a piece of paper. Apparently in Pelourinho there is a tourist police station where they speak English.

Of course when I got there, both employees did not speak a word of English. One of them spoke broken French. It’ll do.

In the meantime, a beautiful Uruguayan couple living just north of Salvador named Veronica and Nicolas decided to make a surprise visit to the city to visit Nicolas’ sister.

Unprepared for their arrival, Nicolas’ sister was in the process of interviewing an Argentinian named Rodrigo about renting out her apartment. Rodrigo and the couple got to talking… The couple works with computers, Rodrigo has a new MacBook Pro (wonder where he got it…). Que buena suerte (such good luck) he must have thought! They can wipe the computer’s hard drive and it’ll be just like he never stole it! Having never touched a MacBook before, he asked Veronica and Nicolas to show him where the CD eject button was so that he could take out his Bob Marley CD.

Rodrigo went to the beach and left the computer with the couple with hopes that it would be all ready when he came back.

Suspicious of the odd request to wipe my computer’s content, Veronica and Nicolas took a peek online where she found my Facebook signed in with my photos. If that wasn’t proof enough that this computer was freshly stolen, they saw my full name displayed in the top right hand corner of the screen.

So here’s me sitting at the tourist police station awaiting a police report that a snail could have preformed faster, while Veronica is on my Facebook posting a status to contact me because I had been robbed.

When Rodrigo got back, Nicolas would not let the thief back in to get the stolen computer. He asked Rodrigo for the camera too, but the Argentinian wouldn’t give that back, nor the SD card. After about 15 minutes of arguing he finally left, without my computer!

Main Status

It was only by chance that I found out about the status, despite some of my friends’ best efforts to contact me through email or Facebook. I had no access to Internet because it was a Sunday and nothing was open.

I was eager to set off for Lencois, a nearby tourist town, to get rid of the bad energy I was feeling in Salvador, but had to wait for my police report – which would take another two hours because the lady writing it was hungry and wanted lunch! Ahem, wasn’t there a crime to solve!? This no-pressure attitude while handling necessary services is something that Salvador and Brazil’s Bahia province is infamous for.

While I waited upset and with thoughts of my retreat home to Canada out of disappointment, I went to a nearby hostel to visit a Canadian friend. She wasn’t there, but her boyfriend Pedro who works at the hostel was. Reluctantly, I told him the embarrassing news – that I had apparently left my locker and lost my computer and camera.

“Dude!,” the Brazilian told me in his perfect colloquial English accent. “You didn’t see your Facebook status? Someone found it and they want to meet up!”

Huh!? This must be a joke! My first instinct was to laugh.

I went to look and alas, there on Facebook, was my own status updated with all the information I needed to contact Veronica and Nicolas!

Veronica truly went above and beyond to get a hold of me. She messaged Damian, the Argentinian from CouchSurfing and called the hostel to get a hold of me.

Veronica tried diligently to find me

They also took photos and posted them on my own wall to prove that they had the computer.


The comments on Facebook were filled with heart warming messages from family and friends from all walks of life. “Good things happen to good people,” said a friend I knew from high school, but hadn’t seen in over five years. “Well today officially became the shitiest day of the year…! At least Joel Balsam’s story still gives me faith in the world!” read a status of a former teammate from the French Jeux de la Communications.

I called Veronica. No answer.

I went to message a close friend of mine on Pedro’s computer to express my shock and suddenly I was typing my own name in chat, but I really wasn’t… Veronica was also logged in to Facebook and was communicating with me through the same message!

See how the conversation immediately changes as a third party enters the conversation
See how the conversation immediately changes as a third party enters the conversation

Didn’t Facebook used to sign you out if you were signed in at two different locations?

Anyway, Veronica messaged me the address and I punched it into Google Maps. Ready to head out the door, Pedro, the guy who worked at the hostel stopped me. “Dude, that’s in the worst and most dangerous part of the city.” Crap! Salvador is already pretty dangerous, so I could only imagine what the locals would do to a white gringo like me. Hopefully, a white gringo with his Macbook.

A closer search on Google Maps found the same street in a completely different part of the city. Relief.

Two hours later by bus and taxi I arrived to Veronica and Nicolas’ huge condominium and rang the doorbell. Finally, I would meet face to face with the saints that found my computer! But… you guessed it… they weren’t there! Crap, I thought as I looked out the window. I was in some strange place and still unsure if this was all real. Seconds later, a happy couple looked up at me from the street and said “hoy!” I knew it was them!

I sat at their kitchen table, still numb from the whole experience as they related the wild story back to me of how they encountered Rodrigo and hustled the computer back for me. Soon, we got to laughing and talking about each others’ lives.

Got it back!!!

If it wasn’t enough that they saved me the grief and expense of buying a new computer, Nicolas offered me an old shirt as a keepsake to take with me on my journeys.

Kickin butt!
Kickin’ butt!

I took Veronica and Nicolas out for pizza dinner and drinks and they offered me a place to stay when I come back from Chapada Diamantina, a nearby national park. And, Veronica wants to teach me to surf! How could I say no?

So, there you have it. There are good, even great people out there! Something I will tell the grandkids.

What would you have done?

All in a day’s travels!

Puma Nava captures a poisonous yellow cobra for us stunned travellers.

Skin of a snake, lungs of a dolphin, and the eyes of an eagle. A man so bad ass you could write a whole list of Chuck Norris facts about him.

Puma Nava, 25, was born of the jungle and knows how to conquer it. His scars, like the two snake bites on his right hand that brought him within five minutes of his death stand as a reminder of the experiences he’s faced and survived.

Puma was my tour guide for the Pampas region along the Beni river in the Amazon basin. He is like no other human being I have ever encountered.

Pampas Region, Bolivia.

Picture a group of gringo tourists floating slowly along the Beni at nightfall, shining their flashlights and dorky headlamps towards the muddy shores for a glimpse of a nocturnal predator. They sit there hopelessly wagging their artificial lights and praying that they are not another group of tourists to get rejected by the mighty stubborn force of jungle wildlife. Then, unexpectedly the 35-foot ancient-looking wooden motorboat edges closer to the shore. Puma, it’s worthy captain, slowly with eyes fixed on the translucent brown muddy water steps out of the boat and into the water. In a smooth, but deadly attack he plunges his bare hands into the water and pulls out a medium-sized alligator by the neck, hauling it into the boat for the stunned tourists to touch and take photos with.

“Classic Puma,” said an English tourist with a cowboy hat.

Captured my first alligator via Puma. Photo by Inge de Graaf

Puma is a member of the primarily traditional hunter/gatherer indigenous tribe called the Tsimané who live in the Beni region of Bolivia. Their tribe has been subject to various anthropological studies over the last decade under the banner of “The Tsimané Health and Life History Project,” which looks into the effects of aging on this traditional population. The Project and the Tsimané made news in 2009 when a study uncovered that Tsimanés are generally exempt from diabetes and hypertension – a worthy discovery in the battle against these two mass killers. Instead, Tsimanés tend to be brought down by the infectious diseases that run rampant in their tropical homeland, which brings their life expectancy to just 42.

Not so for the Nava family, according to Puma. His shaman-healer grandfather allegedly lived to 105 without once attending an infirmary. Natural remedies found in their regional backyard have aided his family over the years.

Lounging on a branch in the Pampas, Puma recounted a story in which his father’s leg was crushed by a large tree. Broken and with the skin around his thigh completely torn off, Puma’s grandfather took bark from a nearby tree and made a skin graft out of it to cover the open wound.

One year later, his father could move his foot just the slightest. Two years later, he could walk. Three years on he was back to leading tours in the Beni region, just like his two sons Puma and Ariel would go on to do as their careers.

Tours are extremely popular in the Beni region. Experience-hungry tourists eager to see the wonders of the Amazon region tend to land in the town of Rurrenabaque and sign up with one of the many tour companies stationed there. Rurrenabaque is also home to Puma’s family.

Despite the influx of tourists from England, the United States and Canada, Puma cannot adequately speak English. “When you come to Bolivia, you speak Spanish,” said Puma in Spanish to a couple of girls from Holland. “If I go to Holland I will speak Dutch.”

“But, you don’t speak Dutch!” giggled the girls.

Puma may not speak Dutch or even English, but he happens to be fluent in one of the world’s newest conversational languages, which is officially spoken in only one tiny country – Hebrew.

After some Israeli-tourists made fun of Puma in Hebrew, Puma decided to become fluent in the Semitic-based language by learning on his own.

“He speaks perfect Hebrew,” said one rambunctious Israeli-tourist. “It’s unbelievable.”

Rurrenabaque and the Beni tours are especially popular among Israelis who tour South America after finishing their military service in the Israeli Defense Force. As a result, many tour guides like Puma and his brother choose to learn Hebrew instead of English in order to communicate with the Israelis.

Learning to communicate with the tourists is an extremely minimal criteria for Beni tour guides. Their greatest worry must be the dauntingly unpredictable rainforest.

Puma feeds a deadly caiman.

For the Pampas tour, Puma is expected to find anacondas, alligators, caimans, river dolphins, monkeys and maybe even a jaguar. The stakes are high for the illustrious recommendation in a blog, travel guide or even a suggestion to some friends interested in taking the trek.

In the morning of the second day of my Pampas tour, we trudged through the swampy Pampas in our knee-high boots staring at the shrubbery for a glimpse of a ferocious anaconda, cobra, or even a poisonous rattlesnake. Many tours don’t get to see snakes and we had no idea what to expect.

Suddenly, we heard a loud grunt and looked over to see Puma swinging a massive poisonous yellow cobra around, taming it with every blow to the ground. The cobra eventually submitted to our Steve Irwin-esque tour guide and was a friendly subject for pictures. Classic Puma.

Later in the trip, Puma whistled down a wild eagle to come eat a fresh pirinha that he caught, teased a deadly caiman with fresh catfish, toyed with troops of tiny monkeys, and introduced us to a number of river dolphins. Just another day at the office for a Beni tour guide.

While the spectacle for us humans is an absolute delight, adventure tours like these are not sustainable for the animal population. Swinging around a rare snake or choking an alligator is not exactly healthy for these animals. Plus, the tourists’ DEET insect repellant covered fingers are poisonous to the animals that they touch.

What the tours bring us is a rattling sense of human capability. No amount of schooling or training could adequately prepare Puma for his daily dangerous bouts with wildlife. It is this feeling that makes us question our sheltered and safe lives in the West and gives us the ever-illustrious culture shock that we crave.

For Puma, a father of two, even if the tourists leave and never come back to visit him, each tour brings adventure and puts a smile on his face.

Classic Puma.

Downtown Sucre, Bolivia, was like a ghost town during the national census.

The door to my hostel was shut, the streets were empty like the opening scene of 28 Days Later and I had no clean water or food. I would go to a country with a forced curfew.

I happened to be stuck in the Bolivia’s constitutional capital, Sucre, during its first national census in 11 years. If caught outside I could have faced a 1500 Bolivianosfine ($214 CAN) or even jail time.

So obviously I went outside to check it out.

I was caught by this platoon of Bolivian police during the census curfew. Photo by Niall Flynn.

300 Bolivians were detained by police for violating the curfew and 1927 arrests were made against people who were riding in vehicles without a permit. Fortunately for me, I was simply told by the platoon of police to head back to my hostel.

On Wednesday night, the Bolivian government called the census a “success,” despite reports of a lack of ballots, conflicts over boundaries, the disorientation of the canvassers and the forced return of residents to their communities. Some people with holiday homes argued with the government of their inability to be in two residences at once. Most spectacularly, pollsters in the northern province of Beni were kidnapped over boundary disputes.

Nevertheless, the results of the estimated $50 million census will be extremely crucial to Bolivia’s political and economic future. It will help determine the population (estimated at 11 million), what languages are still spoken, living conditions, education, health status, income, and basic/unmet needs; all important statistics for designing public policies.

At the top of the list will be to pull Bolivia out of it’s infamous reputation as South America’s poorest country – something not dissimilar to other resource-rich countries that suffer from what is often dubbed as “the resource curse.”

Unlike in Canada or the United States, Bolivia has no effective postal system to distribute census forms. Instead, 35 000 policemen and 200 000 hired canvassers had to scale the country’s sky-scraping mountains, dense tropical forests and desert-like plains personally asking every one of the estimated 11 million citizens about their language, material possessions, level of education, household details etc. Even tourists and foreigners were asked one-by-one to fill out the questionnaire from their hostel or temporary residence without being asked to present their passports.

Left off the questionnaire was the option to define oneself as a “mestizo” or mixed race. Deciding on one could be particularly difficult for the estimated 40 ethnic groups listed on the census.

“This would be like dividing Bolivia,” said the country’s charismatic indigenous leader Evo Morales.

Evo Morales’ palace overlooks the massive metropolis that is La Paz.

Since coming into power in 2005, Morales has made sweeping changes to the political climate in Bolivia. A self-proclaimed socialist, the former union leader for a coca-growers union has advocated strongly for indigenous rights and political autonomy. He has re-initiated the teaching of indigenous languages in schools and attempted to limit the transition towards English.

When speaking with people around La Paz, the de-facto capital, I have been told that Bolivians are more confident in calling themselves indigenous now that one of their own is in power – especially among those of Aymara and Quechua decent who are Morales’ strongest supporters.

An indigenous woman sells traditional native clothing mostly to tourists outside the indigenous museum in Sucre.

Internationally, Morales is a leader considered to be part of a political leftwards shift in South America over the past decade – akin with the governments in Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil and Peru. He is also quite hostile towards the US “imperialists” and strongly opposed to their anti-narcotics policies.

However, I have also been told that Morales’ support has begun to shift since being re-elected decisively with 64% of the vote in 2009. His unsuccessful bid to cut government fuel subsidies caused protests and forced him to withdraw from the plan in 2010. Also, his eccentric personality and sometimes unfiltered public speaking has gotten the charismatic leader into hot water. At the 2010 World Summit on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Morales made a speech that implied that eating chicken causes men to go gay. And just this year, Morales asked American actor Sean Penn to be his international ambassador on the decriminalization of coca leaves. No lie.

Morales is up for re-election in 2014, but only if he calls a referendum according to the Leader of the Opposition party Juan del Granado – Article 168 stipulates that a leader may only rule for one successful term. However, Morales argues that his first term was incomplete and thus is entitled to one more term. Time will tell. Until then, there still is two years of Morales’ rule, which should be enough to draft new policies due to the results of the census.

Hey my name is Joel Balsam and welcome to my travel blog!

Who Am I? I’m a 21st century multi-media journalist. Unashamed of my curiosity, I am experiencing to experience and to tell you about it. Who inspires me? Hunter S. Thompson, Jian Ghomeshi, Shane Smith and Tin Tin.

All jokes aside (or inside), I love to produce media.

I recently graduated from Concordia University in Montreal with a Double Major in Journalism and Political Science. While there, I got involved with every media organization I could, including the campus radio station CJLO 1690 AM where I was News Director and co-creator/co-host of a radio show called Currently Concordia (think CBC Radio’s “Q,” but at University), the campus TV station CUTV, created three documentaries and more…

Forget The Box has graciously given me a soapbox to stand on while I partake on a potentially life-changing journey to South America (Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil). I’m packing light.

I’ve always been extremely interested in this particular continent. It is so steaming hot politically that the powder keg is bound to explode in revolution at any time and that is extremely attractive to a news junkie like me! Also, the culture and art scene there is extremely rich.

If you are looking for a travel blog with the hottest resorts, a daily account of where I went, or the best food, you won’t find it here (although there are some really cool blogs out there that you should check out if you are interested such as Legal Nomads What you will find here is real journalism – with interviews, background information and intriguing life stories from my perspective.

Sure, I realize that I am not the first twenty-something white male from the suburbs to travel to poor countries. I’m not going to “save the planet,” or to disrupt the local community (as much as possible). Instead, I am going to experience vastly different cultures and meet new people. Instead of hogging that information to myself, I will use my media skills to create a connection between you and the people I meet with this blog.

Make sure to subscribe to this page on your RSS feed and keep up with my journey.

Hasta Luego!

The following is an open letter signed by 109 Chilean student leaders and academics:

The undersigned Chilean academics and student leaders denounce before the national and international public opinion the persecution of the Quebec student movement in Canada, as expressed in Bill 78, enacted on Thursday May 19 by the Provincial Government of Premier Jean Charest.

Bill 78, the “truncheon law”, is the most severe piece of legislation since the War Measures Act was used during the October Crisis in 1970, and has been denounced by the President of the Quebec Bar Association, Amnesty International, the League for Human Rights, four major unions, and various academic bodies.

The bill infringes on Quebec citizens’ freedoms by restricting fundamental aspects of their freedoms of expression, protest, and association, consecrated in the Canadian Constitution and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

This bill not only affects the students who have been on strike protesting against the tuition hike for the past 15 weeks; it also severely affects the rights of all citizens – especially professors, academics, and workers – whose rights to expression and association are also being affected.

Among the measures, we denounce those that prevent the spontaneous demonstrations of any group of more than fifty people, the prohibition of protests within fifty meters of any academic institution, strengthening the power of police forces by allowing them to decide whether a protest is legal or not at any moment, or whether an individual is an instigator.

Similarly, it punishes all public expressions of support for these mobilizations. For example, no one may restrict students’ entry to schools and universities during times of conflict under penalty of heavy fines for individuals, the student associations to which they may belong, as well as for workers’ and student union leaders. These fines vary from $1,000 to $125,000.

The leaders of student associations have announced that they will file legal motions against Bill 78 for its unconstitutional nature and they have called for the solidarity of all citizens.

The people of Quebec have supported the Chilean people for many long years through their active solidarity. Today, we feel compelled to express and demonstrate our full solidarity with their student associations and leaders, unions, and citizens’ movement. We do this not only in solidarity, but also because we understand that any attack against freedoms in any part of this globalized world, is an attack against our own freedoms. The Chilean government’s so-called “Hinzpeter law” adopts the same repressive and undemocratic measures as Bill 78.

The struggles of Quebec students, academics and workers are also our struggles.

Santiago, Chile, May 24, 2012


1. Sergio Grez Toso, historian, faculty member of the University of Chile.
2. María Eugenia Domínguez, journalist, faculty member of the University of Chile.
3. Gabriel Boric, President, University of Chile Student Federation (FECH).
4. Camila Vallejo Dowling, Vice-President, University of Chile Student Federation (FECH).
5. Felipe Ramírez, General Secretary, University of Chile Student Federation (FECH).
6. Andrés Fielbaum, Communications Secretary, University of Chile Student Federation (FECH).
7. Pablo Soto Arrate, Executive Director of the Learning Centre of the University of Chile Student Federation (FECH).
8. Rodrigo Cárdenas Cabezas, General Secretary, University of Magallanes Student Federation, Punta Arenas.
9. Sebastián Aylwin Correa, Vice-President, Law School Student Centre, University of Chile.
10. Francisco Figueroa, former Vice-President, University of Chile Student Federation (FECH).
11. Loreto Fernández, former President, Faculty of Social Science Student Centre, University of Chile (2011); current Delegate for Well-being, University of Chile Student Federation (FECH).
12. Health Students Council, University of Chile.
13. Eloisa González Dominguez, Spokesperson, Manuel de Salas High School Student Assembly;Spokesperson, Secondary-School Students of Santiago, Coordination Assembly (ACES).
14. Gabriel González, President, National Institute Alumni Centre (CAIN) 2012, Santiago.
15. Álvaro Fernández, President, Vocational High School Student Government (GELA), 2011-2012, Santiago.
16. Matías Cárdenas, former Spokesperson (2011),Vocational High School; current Executive Secretary, Vocational High School Student Government (GELA), 2011-2012, Santiago.
17. Tamara Castro, President, Carmela Carvajal de Prat High School Student Centre, Providencia, Santiago.
18. Diego Bautista Cubillos Polo, Executive Secretary, Barros Arana Internado Nacional Student Centre, Santiago.
19. Jorge Silva, President, José Victorino Lastarria High School Student Centre, Providencia, Santiago.
20. Camila Hernández, President, Tajamar High School Student Centre, Providencia, Santiago.
21. Moisés Paredes, former Spokesperson, Arturo Alessandri Palma High School, Providencia, Santiago; current representative of students who have been expelled and have lost their scholarship to this high school.
22. Camila Fuentes, President, Providencia 7 High School Student Centre (CELIS) 2012, Santiago.
23. Sebastián Vielmas, former General Secretary (2011), Catholic University of Chile Student Federation (FEUC).
24. Pablo Oyarzún Robles, philosopher, faculty member of the University of Chile.
25. Eduardo Flores Retamal, President, University of Chile Veterinary School Student Centre.
26. Carlos Ruiz Encina, sociologist, faculty member of the University of Chile.
27. José Aylwin, lawyer, faculty member of the University Austral of Chile, Valdivia.
28. Manuel Loyola, historian, faculty member of the University of Santiago de Chile.
29. Ariel Russel García, Advisor, University of Chile Student Federation (FECH) from the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences.
30. Diego Corvalán, Advisor, University of Chile Student Federation (FECH); former General Secretary of the University of Chile Social Sciences Student Centre.
31. Faride Zerán, journalist, faculty member of the University of Chile, winner of the National Award for Journalism (2007).
32. Felipe Portales Cifuentes, sociologist, faculty member of the University of Chile.
33. Alexis Meza Sánchez, historian, former leader of the University of Concepción Student Federation.
34. Carlos Ossandón Buljevic, philosopher, faculty member of the University of Chile.
35. Pedro Rosas Aravena, historian, Director of the University ARCIS School of History and Social Sciences.
36. Jonás Chnaidemann, biologist, faculty member and university senator of the University of Chile.
37. Marcelo Santos, social communications, educator and consultant in communications and democracy.
38. Pierina Ferretti, sociologist, faculty member of the University of Valparaíso.
39. Luis Casado, engineer with CESI (France), advisor of the Mining Confederation of Chile.
40. Mario Matus González, historian, faculty member of the University of Chile.
41. Jorge Pinto Rodríguez, historian, faculty member of the University of la Frontera, Temuco.
42. Ignacio Díaz Concha, General Secretary, University of Chile Baccalaureate Student Centre.
43. Víctor de la Fuente, journalist, Director of the Chilean edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.
44. Carlos Sandoval Ambiado, historian, faculty member of the University of Los Lagos and of the University Viña del Mar.
45. Germán F. Westphal, linguist, Chilean-Canadian citizen.
46. Isabel Cassigoli, sociologist, faculty member of the University ARCIS.
47. Margarita Iglesias Saldaña, historian, faculty member of the University of Chile.
48. Ángela Vergara, historian, faculty member of California State University, Los Angeles, USA.
49. Jorge Chuaqui K., sociologist, faculty member of the University of Valparaiso, President of the National Association of Mental Health Services Beneficiaries (ANUSSAM).
50. Félix J. Aguirre D., sociologist and political scientist, faculty member of the University of Valparaiso.
51. Julio Pinto Vallejos, historian, faculty member of the University of Santiago de Chile.
52. Mauricio Barría Jara, playwright, faculty member of the University of Chile.
53. Darcie Doll Castillo, PhD in Literature, faculty member of the University of Chile.
54. Carlos Molina Bustos, surgeon and historian, faculty member of history in the School of Public Health in the University of Chile and the University of Viña del Mar.
55. Francisco de Torres, General Spokesperson for the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities Postgraduate Student Assembly at the University of Chile.
56. Isabel Jara, historian, faculty member of the University of Chile.
57. Pedro Bravo Elizondo, PhD in Literature, faculty member of Wichita State University, Kansas,USA.
58. José del Pozo, historian, faculty member of the Université de Québec à Montreal, Canada.
59. Marco Rodríguez W., sociologist, faculty member of the University of Valparaiso.
60. Igor Goicovic Donoso, historian, faculty member of the University of Santiago de Chile.
61. Gabriel Muñoz, Coordinator, History Students Assembly of the University of Chile.
62. Bárbara Brito, Advisor, University of Chile Student Federation (FECH), Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities.
63. Benjamín Infante, Advisor, University of Chile Student Federation (FECH), Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities.
64. Manuel Jesús Hidalgo Valdivia, economist.
65. Juan Carlos Gómez Leyton, political scientist, faculty member of the University ARCIS.
66. Iván Ljubetic Vargas, historian, former faculty member of the University of Chile campus in Temuco.
67. Rodrigo Contreras Molina, anthropologist, faculty member of the University of la Frontera, Temuco.
68. Marcelo Garrido Pereira, geographer, Head of the Geography Department at the University Academy of Christian Humanism.
69. Javier Sandoval Ojeda, former President of the University of Concepción Student Federation,(1996-1997).
70. Mario Valdés Vera, historian, faculty member of the University of Concepción.
71. Pablo Aravena Núñez, faculty member of the University of Valparaiso.
72. César Cerda Albarracín, historian, faculty member of the Metropolitan Technological University.
73. Paz López, Academic Coordinator, Masters in Cultural Studies, University ARCIS.
74. María Soledad Jiménez, historian, faculty member of the University Academy of Christian Humanism.
75. Mario Garcés Durán, historian, faculty member of the University of Santiago de Chile, Director of ECO Communications.
76. Rodrigo Zúñiga Contreras, philosopher, faculty member of the University of Chile.
77. Sergio Rojas Contreras, philosopher, faculty member of the University of Chile.
78. Carmen Gloria Bravo Quezada, historian, faculty member of the University of Santiago de Chile.
79. Miguel Valderrama, historian, faculty member of the University ARCIS.
80. Kevin Villegas, sociologist, faculty member of the University Pedro de Valdivia campus in Chillán.
81. Alonso Serradell Díaz, Master in Citizenship and Human Rights: Ethics and Policy, University of Barcelona.
82. Catherine Valenzuela Marchant, profesor, doctoral student in History at the University of Chile.
83. Viviana Bravo Vargas, historian, doctoral student in Latin American Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
84. Enrique Fernández Darraz, sociologist and historian.
85. Florencia Velasco, BA in Literature and masters student in Literature at the University of Chile, Universidad de Chile, editor of Lom Editions.
86. Blaise Pantel, faculty member in the Department of Sociology and Political Science, Catholic University of Temuco.
87. Sebastián Ríos Labbé, lawyer, faculty member of the University of Chile.
88. Oscar Zapata Cabello, student delegate for the School of Chemistry, Faculty of Sciences at the University of Chile.
89. Evelin Ledesma Cruz, volunteer and activist with the Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (CDHAL), Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
90. Laureano Checa, faculty member of the Communication and Image Institute (ICEI) of the University of Chile.
91. Lorena Antezana Barrios, faculty member of the Communication and Image Institute (ICEI) ofthe University of Chile.
92. Milton Godoy Orellana, historian, faculty member of the University Academy of Christian Humanism.
93. José Miguel Labrín, faculty member of the Communication and Image Institute (ICEI) of the University of Chile.
94. Ximena Poo Figueroa, faculty member of the Communication and Image Institute (ICEI) of the University of Chile.
95. José Alberto de la Fuente, PhD in Literature, faculty member of the Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez Catholic University.
96. Jorge Gonzalorena Döll, sociologist, faculty member of the University of Valparaíso.
97. Sandra Oyarzo Torres, matron, faculty member of the University of Chile.
98. Luis Castro, historian, faculty member of the University of Valparaíso.
99. Patricio Troncoso Ovando, production engineer, former President of the Federico Santa María Technical University Student Federation (FEUTFSM) at the Talcahuano campus (2001-2003).
100.Gonzalo Ojeda Urzúa, sociologist, faculty member of the University of Valparaíso.
101.Valentina Saavedra, former President of the Architecture Students’ Centre, current Advisor for the University of Chile Student Federation (FECH) Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism.
102.Cristián Pozo, sociologist.
103.Francisco Herrera, philosopher, faculty member of the University of Chile.
104.Eleonora Reyes, historian, faculty member of the University of Chile.
105.Jorge Weil, economist, faculty member of the University of Los Lagos, Osorno.
106.Aldo González Becerra, biologist, faculty member of the Autonomous University of Madrid, researcher with the Superior Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), Spain.
107.Luis Mundaca, union leader of the Heineken Union Federation – CCU Chile, General Secretary of the Vocational High School Parents and Guardians Centre, Santiago.
108.Rodrigo Roco, former President of the University of Chile Student Federation (FECH), (1997).
109.Virginia Vidal, author.

Hemispheric leaders gathered in Cartagena, Colombia this past weekend for the Summit of the Americas. From the onset, it seems one thing was made perfectly clear; the flock no longer fears the wolf.

The “wolf” helped in the deposing of democratically elected leaders in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama and El-Salvador through a coup or CIA/military intervention.

Decades of influence and meddling on the part of the United States left many Latin American countries as poor, failed states; a consequence of propping up puppet dictators across a continent.

The failed coup attempt in Venezuela back in 2002 to overthrow President Hugo Chavez marked the last known attempt by the United States to undermine the will of a foreign populace. Consequently, it also signalled a decade of growth for the country and the whole of South America, especially Brazil.

Latin America is emerging as a respectable and viable destination for foreign investment. Brazil is now the world’s 6th largest economy. Argentina, Columbia, Peru and Venezuela have all weathered the global economic downturn with relative ease and are growing at a significant rate.

Fidel & Raul Castro of Cuba

This year’s Summit of the Americas reflected those changes on the ground and focused more on the increasing isolated policies of Canada and the United States; the ongoing exclusion of Cuba from the Summit and the failed war on drugs.

Cuba’s membership in the Organization of American States (OAS) was suspended fifty years ago. Canada and the United States are the only counties in the OAS who don’t support Cuba having a seat at the table.

“The isolation, the embargo, the indifference, the looking the other way, don’t work,” Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian President said. “This path is no longer acceptable in today’s world. It’s an anachronism that keeps us anchored in a Cold-War era that was overcome decades ago.”

The war on drugs is a huge deal to Latin American countries. The US policy of prohibition has brought enormous suffering to the people of those countries and has cost the lives of tens of thousands; it has done nothing to stem the flow of drugs.

The U.S. is the biggest importer of Latin American drugs and is not only the biggest exporter of their own prohibition policy, but the United States is also the biggest exporter of armaments the gangs and police use to fight the war.

A growing number of OAS countries are now in favour of decriminalizing or legalizing illicit drugs in order to curtail the violence that comes with the illegal drug trade. Stephen Harper and Barack Obama have both shown no interest is reviewing their drug policies. In fact, Harper refuses to discus the matter altogether.

Win McNamee , Getty Images
Harper & Obama: Odd Men Out

Two years ago, members of the OAS created the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and it is essentially the OAS without the membership of Canada or the United States. While some member countries differ on its overall purpose, it is a further indication that the influence of the United States is weakening.

If Canada and the U.S. wish to participate in the affairs of South and Central American countries in the future and share in their economic success, it looks as if they’ll finally have learn how to speak their language, and I don’t mean Spanish.

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Norberto Lopez’ eyes dart nervously out of our tour bus and at the synchronized commotion occurring at Colombia’s only major Pacific Ocean Port, Buenaventura.

The students had been protesting against the privatization of Colombian Universities, and had won – Article 30 had been announced ‘repealed’ earlier that 35C day, so the students were blockading and occupying the only bridge through town in celebration.

The on-site managing-director for a Port Authority that has 144 different operators vying for cargo and commission on a dock notorious worldwide for its narcotics trafficking, Noberto has the right to be tense – with or without the backed-up bridge.

The 5000 port workers who move 1200 containers of cargo per day are not the only contributors to the portside throng. There are truck drivers, stevedores, private security hired by companies and government agents who are in place to check area regulated by the Port Authority for narcotics and smuggling.

Add in the fishermen, women and informal workers from the neighboring barrio of San Jose de Buenaventura, and you have a controlled chaos that may be too large to contain when the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) between Colombia, Canada and the US begin requiring larger shipping lanes and port expansion.

Like so many other issues in Colombia, Norberto sees Port Authority issues getting busier and larger as the FTAs begin to have their effects.

“The port will be busier and the port authority will be more important. How can we reduce accidents? How will labour standards be respected?” asks Norberto. “The Port Authority should be in charge of creating regulations – not only enforcing them.”

There are currently no security benefits or pensions for port workers. The Port gets around this labour inconvenience, as do the majority of multi-nationals working in Colombia, by hiring general labour through short 23-day contracts – this also ensures competition for jobs dividing the work force because the worker has no job security beyond the next three weeks or guarantee of contract renewal.

Juan (not his real name), was with us for the entire day. From when we hopped on motorcycle taxis to navigate through the car-jam in the noon day heat, until when we exchanged contact information between our teams in a dimly-lit Buenaventura hotel-room later that evening.

Juan was representing the Union Porturia de Colombia – What he stated to be the ‘true’ Buenaventura port workers’ union.

“Many large companies in Colombia create what they call “unions” and then these are who the companies deal and negotiate with – their own creations and not the workers,” Juan explains. “The Port Authority in Cartagena is the only PA which negotiates directly with its workers.”

What the Workers’ Union would like to see is an occasion to sit down, in a civilized fashion, with both port workers and members of the port authority to come to a working arrangement that would guarantee good lives and outcomes for all.

One important item to be discussed is the infiltration of labour co-operatives into the working pool. Not only do these sub-contractors take an additional fee from the workers’ salaries, these groups hardly, if ever, represent or respect acceptable labour standards.

There are 144 operators organizing at Port Buenaventura because each company sub-contracts their own workers to load and unload within the Port Authority. It has become so convoluted that there are some workers who have been unloading for years at Buenaventura, yet still receive different pay per load depending on which company’s load they are moving.

Both Juan and Norberto feel that there should be only one operator at the Buenaventura Port Authority, to assume all responsibility and standardize the pay rate at the docks.

There is also the problem of racism that needs to be discussed. The current impression in the Afro-Colombian community is that Afro-Colombian port workers, who are local, are being fired and replaced by workers brought from the Colombian interior, who are then paid better salaries and provisions.

Hopefully, these working discussions can translate into labour rights legislation from both the Colombian Congress and Senate – Juan and his union feel that these labour guarantees and protections will be more important now with the FTAs between Colombia and both the US and Canada.

What the Colombian Port Workers’ Union does recognize is that what they are asking for within their specific industry are the same recognitions sought by workers in different industries throughout the country.

Sugar cane cutters, flower growers and pickers, palm oil specialists and port workers all understand that by working together they will strengthen the success of the movement and avoid being part of a divided labour force which weakens the voice of demand.

And you will not be heard in Port Buenaventura, Colombia if you speak with a weak voice.

* Pictures by Tariq Jeeroburkhan, people pictured are not those mentioned in the report