Poverty, repression, resistance: Nigeria to Hungary

Romanian demonstrator: The world has mouths to feed

The first anniversary of Egypt’s revolution comes in ten days.   Cairo is suffering an inexplicable gas shortage: perhaps to turn the screws before the expected demonstrations, perhaps just a random thrombosis in a sclerotic economy up to one third of which may be in the greedy hands of  the generals who now run the country.

But you think the Egyptians have it bad? Yesterday, the world economy suffered another shock, with the credit ratings of nine European nations slashed and Greece pushed closer to default.

Even as austerity spreads and militarized police clamp down, though, resistance continues. Here are few scenes from around a still-rebellious world.

In Nigeria, nationwide strikes are due to resume tomorrow in protest against the removal of a key oil subsidy.

Tens of thousands took to the streets for strikes over five successive days last week in protest against the sudden removal of a fuel subsidy on Jan. 1 that more than doubled the pump price of petrol to 150 naira ($0.93) per litre from 65 naira.

“We are suffering,” shouted Paul Edem, after queueing for 12 hours to buy petrol at the new higher price in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. The only alternative to queueing is to buy at three times the new price from touts selling from jerry cans.

Socialist Worker adds:

For decades, the program has helped control the price of transportation and electricity in a country where two-thirds of the population–or about 104 million people–live on less than $1.25 per day. ..

The end of the fuel subsidy will increase the cost of nearly every aspect of life in Nigeria. Communal transport fares have already increased, and the price of food and other basic necessities is expected to soon rise, too. One Nigerian writer pointed out that a sachet of drinkable water, a product many Nigerians rely on, has already doubled in price where he lives.

The subsidy’s removal, absurd on the face of it in the world’s sixth largest oil producer, is part of a “privatization and austerity” plan promoted by President Goodluck Jonathan’s government. The austerity plan’s essence is to reserve more Nigerian commodities for foreign markets.

During the past decade, both the Bush and Obama administrations have funded and supported the increasing militarization of Nigeria. American companies and the U.S. government have a massive stake in Nigeria–44 percent of the oil extracted from the country goes to the U.S.. The U.S. imports more oil from Africa than from the Middle East, and Nigeria alone supplies 8 percent of the crude oil imported into the U.S.

And the combined result of export dependence and militarization is murder:

In multiple Nigerian cities, security forces responded to the protests with violence. In Kano, police shot more than a dozen people on Monday. At least three protesters in Kano and Lagos died from either gunshot wounds or tear gas on the first day of the strike, prompting unions to call off public demonstrations in Kano on Tuesday, while maintaining the strike call.

Bucharest protester: "Down with Băsescu's dictatorship"Romania saw its fourth day of violent protests against government austerity plans, with 1000 demonstrators clashing with police and blocking a boulevard. They started Thursday, after a health ministry official resigned to protest government cutbacks in health care. President Traian Băsescu retracted the cuts the following day, but the rage only mounted. The protests, says the AP,

are the result of frustration against public wage cuts, slashed benefits, higher taxes, cronyism in state institutions and widespread corruption.

Protesters yelled “The Mafioso government stole everything we had!” and “Get out you miserable dog!” — a popular expression of contempt used to refer to Băsescu. Protesters roamed through the center of the capital, and Mayor Sorin Oprescu called on them to refrain from acts of violence. Antena 3 TV reported that shops in the vicinity of the protest were vandalized.

“We are here to protest, we cannot face it any more, we have no money to survive, our pensions are so small, the expenses are more than we can afford. It’s no way to live,” said a protester who would only identify himself as Sorin. Thirteen people needed medical treatment, said Bogdan Opriţa, who heads emergency services in Bucharest.

Saudi Arabia has seen a revival of protest in the perennially disadvantaged and policed Eastern Province — where a large population of disenfranchised Shi’a sit atop the kingdom’s oil. Open Democracy says,

While western powers have been happy to use Saudi Arabia as an ally to ratchet up the pressure on Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria, [they have] not caught a whiff of the silent crackdown occurring within the kingdom. …

Today, while attention was focused on the Strait of Hormuz, on Syria, and on the rising tensions in Bahrain, Saudi security forces launched an assault on the city of Awamiyah killing at least one and wounding half a dozen more. Eye witnesses have stated that soldiers on trucks opened fire on demonstrators, hitting many as they fled. The attack bears all the hallmarks of a planned operation with electricity being cut to the area prior to the assault. The area at the time of writing is apparently still under military lock-down and reflects a state of siege with clashes continuing to occur and gunfire being heard.

This attack was almost certainly condoned by the royal family and comes on the heels of a series of indictments against demonstrators and high profile invectives against the protest movement. Despite this attack and others like it, the rumblings and tremors of protest and crackdown show no sign of abatement. Indeed in the past few months they have once again reared their head in the south west in Najran and Jazan, compounded with protests over women’s rights in Riyadh and Buraydah.

But the resistance to the resistance, the defense of the awfulness of things as they are, is immensely powerful. There is one excellent, dangerously exemplary instance of counter-revolutionary success. Hungary’s ruling party, the ever more far-right and more authoritarian Fidesz, steadily manipulates chauvinism and racism to keep a critical mass of its public distracted from a struggling economy.

He paid youths to attend his speech and clap. He championed laws to silence critical journalists. He rammed through a constitution aimed at remaking Hungary on conservative Christian values. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who made his name protesting Hungary’s communist dictatorship, is now confronting protesters chanting “Viktator!’’

I can barely stomach Bernard-Henri Lévy — every time someone calls him a “philosopher,” Socrates’ mouldering bones must grope for more hemlock — but he writes about Orbán’s loathing of democracy in terms that, for once, seem hardly overblown:

Among its nations, Europe is banishing Greece for failing — it’s true, big time — to fulfill the rules of good economic and financial governance. …

Well, today there exists in the heart of Europe a country whose government gags the media, is dismantling the health and social protection systems, challenges rights once considered acquired, such as that to an abortion, and criminalizes the poor.

There is a country that has revived the most obtuse chauvinism, the most worn-out populism, and the hatred of Tsiganes [sic] and Jews, transforming the latter in an increasingly open manner into scapegoats for any and all misfortune, much as they were in the darkest hours of the history of the continent.

Lévy  concludes, ominously:

In the Internet age, under the new regime where, for better or for worse, “social network” politics reign supreme, in this hour in which everyone communicates with everyone and where a Marine Le Pen can be linked, by a taut thread, to an extremist leader in Thuringia, Flanders, Northern Italy or, thus, to a Viktor Orban, it is not inconceivable that an increasing number of individuals in Europe perceive in this Hungarian laboratory the actualization of their less and less secret plan: undo Europe, get rid of it and, at the same time, get rid of a corset of democratic rules judged, as during the 1930s, unsuitable in times of crisis.

The state and your sex life, II

Government by speculum: Big Brother is examining you

Brazil has its first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, as you may be aware. Why, then, is a Brazilian feminist complaining that “The government wants to send Dilma into our bodies? I’m feeling stabbed anyway. And what is worse: in the back!”

Because Rousseff’s administration is cooperating with those black-and-blue forces, the Church and the Law, that want to find out exactly what is happening inside women’s organs. The day after Christmas, the President, along with the Ministry of Health, promulgated a new decree that creates –what should one call it?– a state-sponsored speculum, ready to inspect women’s reproductive systems willy-nilly.

Provisional Measure 557 (MP 557) creates a “National System of Registration, Tracking and Follow-up of Pregnant and Puerperal Women for the Prevention of Maternal Mortality.” It aims, so it says, “to ensure better access, coverage and quality of maternal health care, notably for pregnant women at risk.” And it mandates “universal registration of pregnant women and mothers, to enable identifying pregnant and postpartum women at risk, and assessment and monitoring of health care they received during prenatal care, childbirth and postpartum care.” Registered pregnant women will be eligible for up to R$50 (around $27 USD) in assistance. The measure states, in Article 19-J, that “public and private health services are required to ensure pregnant women and the unborn the right to safe and humane pre-natal care, delivery, birth, and postpartum care.”

Past and present Presidents: Two kids in every womb!

It is, as Brazil’s authorities surely know, hard to criticize measures couched in the admirable goal of preventing material mortality. But the scary thing for women about this huge new surveillance mechanism is that the decree explicitly elevates “the unborn” as rights-bearers to the same status as the mothers. Brazil, which many calculate is the largest Catholic nation in the world, bans abortion except in the case of rape, severe genetic abnormalities, or danger to the mother’s life. Women face prosecution and prison if they terminate a pregnancy. Yet a 2010 study showed that one in five Brazilian women has had an abortion, and the Health Ministry estimates that 200,000 are hospitalized each year as a result of unsafe, clandestine procedures.

As opposed to its neighbors, Uruguay (which is on the verge of decriminalizing abortion) and Argentina (which saw a first-ever parliamentary debate on the subject last year), Brazil seems determined to reinforce its draconian restrictions.   According to Maria José Rosado, of Catholics for Free Choice in Brazil, a member of Congress has previously proposed a similar pregnancy registry, “declaring his objective loud and clear: to fight abortion.” The Chamber of Deputies is now considering a bill  to pay a pregnant rape victim who does not have an abortion a minimum wage until the child reaches 18 — creating what activists call a “rape pension.”

Nicolae and new Romanian: More of these, or else

Brazilian feminists show little doubt that MP 557, which was launched without any consultation with women’s movements, can and will be used to control reproductive freedom.The clear parallel to the new database in the land of “order and progress” is the practice of Romania’s defunct Communist dictatorship. Nicolae Ceaușescu, obsessed with raising his country’s birth rate, banned both abortion and birth control. He required all women of childbearing age to undergo regular, six-month gynecological exams. Someone who proved pregnant at one examination had to come back in half a year with a child, a bigger fetus, or a good explanation. So unpopular was the regime of pro-natal surveillance that the abortion and contraception bans were the first measures scrapped by Romania’s post-revolutionary government in 1989.

What Ceaușescu did in the name of nationalism, Rousseff pursues as part of a prolonged political flirtation with Catholic and evangelical forces. Feminist activist Fátima Oliveira says:

Unfortunately … Dilma, who is our first female president, is throwing in the trash all the commitments made by Brazil in the arenas of the United Nations in the area of ​​women’s health. Together with Brazilian women’s struggle for full health care and sexual and reproductive rights, which began in the military dictatorship. A setback of 30 years, unprecedented. …

I have the moral authority to say what I say now, because at the time of the Constituent Assembly [the 1988 convention that wrote Brazil’s democratic constitution], I have collected many signatures for freedom of religion in Brazil. I defend the right of everyone in authority to have the religion they want. Only that religion is a thing of personal intimacy, for domestic consumption. The religions of the rulers can not be the rule for  the exercise of public power. In public office, religious issues cannot be conducting public policy. …

It’s time to say to the government that our bodies belong to us and cannot be a bargaining chip with anyone.