Las Americas

Happy Birthday Death!


It was February 15 and this reporter was hunting for a demonstration to cover. A year ago to the date, an estimated 12,000,000 citizens of the world had marched against George Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq, a number worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records.

On that day last year, I had arrived in Baghdad, a member of a delegation of self-declared “Human Shields” prepared to interpose our bodies between Bush’s bombs and the Iraqi peoples. All along the road from Turkey through the Syrian desert and finally into Iraq, well-wishers had lined the way, pressing in around our buses so tightly that you could feel their blood pumping. It was a moment of great hope in a terrible time, one that would be dashed to smithereens by Bush’s March 20 invasion and his malignant display of “shock and awe.”

On February 15, 2004, instead of seething mobs hurling rocks at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City as had transpired the previous year, only two demonstrators and an activist reporter manned and womanned the barricades in front of Washington’s windowless, bunker-like outpost on a deserted Reforma boulevard. The silence was deafening.

As the first birthday of the ill-named “liberation” of Iraq approaches, the dynamic is distinct. 15,000 to 25,000 Iraqis are dead and the country is wrecked and on the brink of civil war. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned under sub-human conditions by the U.S. occupation. The invasion, which was supposed to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, found no WMDs and exposed George Bush as a worthy successor to such purveyors of the Big Lie as Goering and Goebbels. Although the White House now touts Iraq as “the epicenter of world terrorism,” if Al Qaeda has taken root in that beleaguered republic, it is only because George “bring it on” Bush brought it there.

In the days before the bombs began to fall and we were forced to abandon Baghdad, Mr. Karash, the director of the Al Daura oil refinery which we were shielding, invited us into his office for tea. “We know the Americans are coming and we are ready for them,” he told us affably. “They will come into our cities and we will fight them block by block if only with sticks and daggers just as our grandfathers resisted the British and forced them to leave.”

One year later, more than 600 U.S. and coalition forces are officially listed as battlefield dead (at least one Pentagon official suggests that figure should be doubled) and over 2,000 have been wounded and “medically evacuated” from Iraq. At least 22 GIs have committed suicide “over there.” Paul Wolfowitz, as much an architect of this war as McNamara was in Vietnam, had to flee his Baghdad hotel in his underwear, and General Abizaid, the highest-ranking brass in the region, narrowly missed being blown away by a sniper in Falujah. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, just more fog of war.

George Bush himself may well be the ultimate casualty of the Iraqi disaster. Flying high on terror octane ever since 9/11, the U.S. president could very well lose his job next November. “Iraq will be Bush’s tomb” the Mexican daily La Jornada editorialized here a few mornings ago.

Relations between Washington and Mexico City soured precipitously on the eve of the war last February and March. In one of the few moments of truth in his three-year reign, Mexican president Vicente Fox earned Bush’s enmity by doing the right thing and instructing his representative on the United Nations Security Council, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, to vote down the U.S.–Great Britain-sponsored aggression against Iraq. Knowing that it would fail to carry, the White House eventually withdrew its war resolution and unilaterally marched into Iraq with the Brits and the Spanish tagging along at their side, puppy dog-style. Communication between Bush and Fox got very frosty very fast.

Before the resolution was withdrawn, however, British intelligence was asked by its U.S. counterparts to provide “technical” assistance in “observing” the delegations of Security Council members that had not yet announced their intentions, according to testimony offered in a London courtroom by Katherine Gun, a British operative, who leaked the information to the press and was subsequently drummed out of a job. Both Aguilar Zinser and Juan Manuel Valdez, head of Chile’s Security Council delegation, have confirmed that their office telephones were bugged, a violation of United Nations protocols.

In an interview with the British Observer last month, Aguilar Zinser revealed how a last-ditch peace effort by six uncommitted Security Council members on the eve of the aggression had been bugged. The morning after the meeting, when the group met with John Negroponte, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., the plan was already on his desk. The espionage “wrecked the last chance for peace,” Aguilar Zinser laments.

Notwithstanding, when Aguilar Zinser asked Mexico’s neophyte Secretary of Foreign Relations, Luis Ernesto Derbez, who had just replaced the mercurial Jorge Castañeda as foreign minister, to send him a team of security agents to sweep the Mexican U.N. offices for eavesdropping devices, he was told to forget about it. Derbez apparently wanted no new problems with the gringos to contaminate his administration of Mexico’s foreign policy. Late last month, Derbez was asked at a press conference about the alleged spying and responded, “Our position is simple, we do not have our own verification. We have no way of saying, ‘I found this little microphone.'”

Moreover, “If there is no trial, surely there will therefore be no verification of whether there was spying or not,” he said. (Gun had been charged with violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act. Prosecutors dropped the case, offering no explanation.)

Aguilar Zinser himself was fired after telling a Mexico City university audience that the United States continues to treat Mexico as if it were its backyard. Zinser’s removal had been repeatedly called for by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his firing was taken as a clear signal that Fox was once again snuggling up to Bush.

Indeed, a letter timidly inquiring about the spy caper was not tendered to either Washington or London until this past December, nine months after the bugging occurred. Both the United States and the United Kingdom said they would not respond to the inquiry because “we never respond to questions about intelligence matters.”

Meanwhile, Bush and Fox cuddled at the so-called “Summit of the Americas” in Monterrey in mid-January, where the U.S. president, in a flagrant bit of re-electoral grandstanding, offered a “guest worker” program for Mexicans toiling in his country—a thinly veiled ploy to both bring Fox back into the fold and make a dent in the U.S. Latino vote in anticipation of November elections. Now, as polls suggest that sure-shot Democratic Party candidate John Kerry can beat Bush this fall, Fox, whose six-year term overlaps the U.S. presidency, may well have entrusted his marbles to the wrong player.

But the Mexican president is one thing and the people quite another. Although El Pueblo may not be marching en masse on the U.S. embassy, bitterness at Bush’s war is palpable. Just how palpable was demonstrated in Guadalajara last month when the United States soccer team faced off against the Mexican selection for a final spot in the upcoming Athens games, and 60,000 throats began to rumble “Osama! Osama!” in unison as the U.S. team took the field. The cruel, mocking salutation was only the tip of the iceberg.

As reported by the Guadalajara papers, the day before the contest (which the U.S. ineptly kicked away 4 to 0), the North American team had finished off a practice session by collectively urinating on the stadium grass, a gesture Jornada commentator José Blanco characterized as “symbolic of what the gringos have been doing to Mexico for 200 years…” “Osama es el bueno (Osama is the good guy)” warbles troubadour Andres Carrasco in a homemade “corrido” (popular ballad), “because he killed many gringos.”

The exaltation of the name of U.S. Public Enemy Numero Uno by Guadalajara football fans so infuriated anti-Mexican congressperson Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado), head of the House Immigration Reform subcommittee, and apparently a sore loser, that he demanded an immediate apology from Mexico’s outgoing ambassador to Washington, Juan Jose Bremer. His petition was greeted with universal disdain on this side of the border. “Insults don’t kill but wars do,” pointed out Mexican football star Melvin Brown, taking a jab at the Bush genocide in Iraq.

As March 20 international demonstrations against the war draw near, one quandary for the Mexican anti-war movement is how to get the fans out of the soccer stadiums and into the streets.

There is little question that the anti-war movement, which swelled to mammoth proportions before the massacre in Iraq began, is much reduced as the first birthday of death approaches. Demoralization, resignation, frustration, paralyzing fury, the steady grind of a war which is fast disappearing into the back pages, and even support for “our boys” have all thinned out the peace army. As death marches on in Iraq, there are fewer and fewer marchers in the street on both sides of the border.

Projected international demonstrations to end the occupations of both Iraq and Palestine, set to coincide this March 20 with the first anniversary of the invasion, will be a short-term memory test for the anti-war movement and expectations must be tempered by crude reality. The first wave of protests February 15 drew little international interest save in Spain where 150,000 marched, mostly in the capital under the rubric “One Year Later—Madrid Against the War.” Still, these hopeful numbers pale in comparison to February 15, 2003 when 1.5 million Spanish activists took the street. This is to say that after a year in which more than a dozen compatriots lost their lives in Iraq, and pint-sized rightist premier José María Aznar embraced George Bush, only 10 percent of those who marched last year did so again in 2004.

In the United States, where a million participants were estimated at February 15, 2003 protests in New York and San Francisco, 50,000 to 100,000 totals would be deemed a smashing success this year.

The diminishment of the anti-war movement north of the border has been synchronistically attuned to the jostling of candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination—perhaps the late Dean crusade, which purported to be against the war, was most efficient in co-opting activists and getting them out of the street. It is almost as if the U.S. peace movement is incapable of multi-tasking, i.e. marching and voting at the same time.

Now once again wedged firmly into the Democratic Party’s pockets when never before has the need to build a third party been more pertinent (or less realistic in the frenzy to beat Bush), anti-war activists will almost certainly turn March 20 into a John Kerry bandwagon.

As the November election looms up north, Kerry, a decorated war hero who turned against the Vietnam War and now tries to hide his opposition to that hideous episode in Yanqui imperialism, engages in a pissing contest over who is a better soldier with George Bush, a self-styled “war” president who indeed dodged that war when his number came up. It seems only fitting that, as the deaths mount up on all sides in Iraq, the U.S. will soon celebrate a war election.

John Ross, who sends frequent dispatches from Mexico, is the author of Murdered by Capitalism—A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the American Left to be published in June by Nation Books.