Behind Bolivia’s nationalization of Canadian mine

SEPTEMBER 5, 2012 – For the Financial Post, the actions of the Bolivian government in nationalizing a Canadian mine this summer, confirmed the country’s status as an “outlaw nation” (Grace, 2012). But for less biased observers, the reality was a little different. Responding to pressure from local indigenous communities the Bolivian government confirmed, August 2, that it would expropriate the operations of a Canadian-owned mining project. This represents in the short term, the success of local social movements in putting an end to violence created by the tactics of the corporation, and in the long term, one small step towards ending 500 years of foreign powers stripping the country of its natural resources.

South American Silver, headquartered in Vancouver, described the mining project in question – located in Mallku Khota – as “one of the world’s largest undeveloped silver, indium and gallium deposits” (Garces, 2012b). There are 46 indigenous communities in the area, and, these indigenous communities have “rights over their land which are guaranteed in the New Political Constitution of the State of Bolivia” (Garces, 2012b). South American Silver had succeeded in gaining acceptance of their project from 43 of these 46 communities.

But with three communities yet to sign on, there were a series of violent outbreaks. May 5, at 4 in the morning, 50 police officers broke into homes in Malku Khota. In response, “community leaders made the decision to detain two of the police officers”, later released on May 9 (Garces, 2012a). The police violence crystallized opposition to the mining project, and 19 different local ayllus “united to outline the project, inform their bases” and prepare for an upcoming meeting with the governor of the department (or province) of Potosí. (An ayllu is a form of local organization, traditional to the Quechua and Aymara people of the Andes). But tensions exploded again May 18 in a confrontation between those for and against the project, resulting in three wounded. Three days later, a leader of the anti-mining group, Tata Cancio Rojas, was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Again, anti-mining forces, in frustration, resorted to what the press called “kidnapping”. June 29, it was reported that two engineers, working for the Canadian firm – Fernando Fernández and Augstín Cárdenas – had been detained (Noticieros Televisa, 2012). Then July 7, a police “rescue” operation resulted in the death, from a bullet wound, of Jose Mamani, one of the anti-mining activists.

This violence, in the opinion of Bolivian President Evo Morales, was provoked by the transnational company itself. “[U]nfortunately the so-called transnational companies are like that, these companies pit brothers, in-laws, cousins, neighbours, brothers from the same ayllu against one another” (Agencia Boliviana de Información, 2012). This is no doubt true. But the government of Morales should not have let the situation go to the extremes that it did. These kinds of confrontations are inevitable when resting the hopes for development on the profit-driven logic of private capital.

However, quite unlike the “outlaw” portrayed by the Financial Post, Morales responded to this tragedy in a way inconceivable in Canada or the United States. First, he met with the leaders from the ayllus who were opposed to the mining project. Second, he “urged the Public Ministry to carry out a meticulous investigation” into the killing of Mamani. Third, and most significantly, he announced that “the mine will be nationalized via a Supreme Decree” (Agencia Boliviana de Información, 2012). The response of Morales shows the extent to which his government’s push for effective Bolivian sovereignty remains tightly bound up with the social movements which carried him into office in the first place.

That push for effective sovereignty is a very urgent one. Potosí will be unknown to many readers in North America and Europe. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this extremely poor corner of the Americas produced half of the world’s gold and silver (Kohl & Farthing, 2006, p. 38). This was an enormous portion of the initial “primary accumulation” of a then young capitalist system, laying the basis for the enormous expansion of production and wealth in the centuries which followed.

But none of that wealth stayed in the terribly poor deparment of Potosí. The gold and silver poured overseas, to line the pockets of the wealthy in Spain, Britain and the other colonial powers. Potosí, to this day, remains one of the poorest places in our hemisphere.

The Financial Post is acutely aware that Bolivia today is trying to redress this 500 year history of pillage by foreign powers. “Expropriation has a long history in Bolivia, going back to 1937 when the government grabbed Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil), but under Morales the country has become a world leader in this department. He nationalized Bolivia’s national gas industry in 2006, its biggest telecommunications company in 2008, its hydroelectric complex in 2010 and its leading power company in 2012” (Grace, 2012).

For these corporate writers, this makes Bolivia an “outlaw” nation. But the real outlaws are the foreign states and companies which have been stripping wealth from Bolivia for centuries.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This article has been published as Behind Bolivia’s nationalization of Canadian mine,” Climate & Capitalism, 5 September; “Bolivia: Who’s the real ‘outlaw’? Behind Bolivia’s nationalisation of a Canadian mine,” Links, 5 September; “Behind Bolivia’s nationalization of Canadian mine,” Bolivia Rising, September.


Agencia Boliviana de Información. 2012. “Bolivian Government, Indigenous Communities Resolve to Nationalize Canadian Mining Company.”

Garces, Celia. 2012a. “Mallku Khota: A Briefing on South American Silver’s Actions in Bolivia.” The Bullet.

———. 2012b. “Bolivia’s Mine Nationalization of South American Silver Corporation.”

Grace, Kevin Michael. 2012. “An Outlaw Nation — Bolivia Seizes South American Silver’s Malku Khota Project.” Financial Post.

Kohl, Benjamin H., and Linda C. Farthing. 2006. Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance. New York: Zed Books.

Noticieros Televisa. 2012. “Indígenas Bolivianos Secuestran a Ingenieros De Minera Canadiense.” Noticieros Televisa.

Our Debt to Haiti

The year 2010 saw devastating earthquakes hit both Haiti and Chile. The following was written March 4, 2010, in their immediate aftermath. (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti pulled that small island country into the news. We need to try and keep Haiti visible – not just in its current suffering and agony, but in its heroic history of struggle and resistance. That history – almost unknown to Haiti’s neighbours in Canada and the United States – is an indispensable part of the struggle for democracy and human rights in the entire Western Hemisphere.

Most, when asked, will be able to identify the United States of America as the first republic in the Americas to emerge in the struggle against European colonialism. Few know that Haiti was the second. Most, when asked, will know that slavery in the United States ended in the context of the Civil War of the 1860s. Few will know that Haiti was the first country in the Americas to abolish slavery, accomplishing this indispensable democratic task three generations prior to Abraham Lincoln.

Most, when asked, will know that during the U.S. war for independence from Britain, the U.S. rebels received material assistance from France, which was engaged in its own long competition with Britain for control of overseas markets, trade and colonies. Few will know that at a critical moment in that war – the siege of Savannah in 1779 –a company of volunteers from what is today Haiti, fought alongside the U.S. rebels against the British colonialists. This “Black Legion” according to one historian “saved the patriot army from what might have been annihilation.” Members of this legion of affranchis (former slaves who had been granted their freedom) included people like Jean-Baptiste Mars Belley, Louis Jacques Beauvais, Martial Besse, and Andre Rigaud who would in later years all play crucial roles in Haiti’s own fight for independence.[1]

In an important sense, without Haiti establishing independence in 1804, the trajectory of the independence movement elsewhere in the Americas would have been much different. By 1815, the great leader of the independence movement in Latin America, Simón Bolívar, was up against a massive Spanish military incursion, the “strongest expeditionary force that had ever crossed the Atlantic.” But because the independent Republic of Haiti had already wrenched its sovereignty from European powers, the beleaguered Bolívar had a haven to which he could retreat.

This haven was important in a very practical sense. Bolívar “was given a friendly reception as well as money and weapons.”[2] Those weapons “helped Bolívar mount the invasion that ultimately defeated the Spanish Empire in the Americas.” Haiti’s president at the time, Alexandre Sabès Pétion, gave Bolívar “arms and ammunition” and allowed “hundreds of Haitian fighters, known as ‘françeses’ to sail with him.” Bolívar’s Haitian exile was also important politically. Pétion received something very important in exchange for the military assistance he was offering Bolívar – a promise from the great independence leader “to adopt measures to extinguish slavery in the lands he was to free.” [3] This was not carried out on the continent as thoroughly and swiftly as it had been in Haiti. But the importance of the anti-slavery promise made by Bolívar to Pétion in exchange for military support, should not be underestimated in its role as an accelerant in the process of eliminating that horrendous institution.[4]

It is well known that Haiti is desperately poor. In 2010, its income per capita (in Purchasing Power Parities) was just $1,200, the poorest of any country in the Western Hemisphere, and with a rank of just 206 from all 230 countries in the world. Contrast that with France ($33,300 per capita), Canada ($39,600) and the United States ($47,400).[5] January 12, 2010, the world saw the consequences of this poverty in the catastrophe which unfolded in the wake of the earthquake. This natural disaster shattered the country killing tens of thousands. But the reasons for many of the deaths were anything but natural. Grinding poverty had created conditions where buildings were constructed with concrete, but without rebars (steel reinforcing bars). A much more serious earthquake swept through Chile in 2010. However, through a building code dating back to the early 1970s and President Salvador Allende, the use of rebars was mandatory in Chile. Chile could take this step in large part because it is nowhere near as poverty-stricken as Haiti. As a consequence, the loss of life in Chile in February was much less than in Haiti in January.[6]

What is not widely known is that this extremely poor country was in 1791 “the richest slave colony of the Americas.” [7] But that wealth was drained towards Europe, and meant nothing but misery for the vast majority of people in the colony. In the late 18th century the island that today incorporates Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was home to the French colony St. Domingue and the Spanish colony San Domingo. According to CLR James – Trinidadian scholar and great historian of the struggle for Haitian independence – San Domingo was “the most profitable colony the world had ever known.”[8] In 1789, the value of France’s trade with St. Domingue amounted to two thirds of all France’s trade, and more than twice the value of all the trade from all of Britain’s colonies combined.[9] “The brilliant prosperity of Bordeaux and Nantes derived from colonial commerce. With some 465,000 slaves St. Domingue was the largest and most productive slave colony in the Caribbean.”[10] This extraordinary wealth was entirely the product of a system of the most brutal slave labour. Newly arrived slaves in the Caribbean – kidnapped from Africa – “had a life expectancy of only seven or ten years.”[11]

Two things were critical in both a) the ending of this system of slave labour and b) the establishment of Haitian independence. First and most importantly, there was an extraordinary and successful uprising by the slaves themselves. Second, this rebellion was inextricably linked to the French Revolution, the great product of the eighteenth century Enlightenment in Europe.

The first months of the revolution in France put in place a “moderate” revolutionary regime which, while opposing slavery in words, was nonetheless too bound up with French commercial interests to challenge the institution completely. So much of France’s wealth was dependent on Haiti’s slave labour, that the commercial class which wanted freedom from the King and feudalism, was at the same time loathe to contemplate freedom for Haiti’s slaves. What resulted was ludicrous. The French Assembly decreed that the almost 500,000 slaves in St. Domingue must stay slaves, unless they could show that their father and mother were born in France. This ended up applying to a mere 400 “mulattos.”[12]

However, small as this concession was, it helped spark an explosion. To contemplate even the possibility of freedom for even a tiny minority of Haiti’s slaves, was a sign of weakness, a sign that there was for the first time, a chink in the armour of the pro-slavery rulers of the French empire. This was an important factor in giving masses of slaves confidence to launch their magnificent rebellion on 14 August 1791, a rebellion which was to last for 12 years. Within months the army of ex-slaves, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, had captured all the ports on the north of the island. But in spite of that early success, it would take 12 years of bitter warfare – against France, England and Spain – before the people of Haiti could finally win their independence.

The slave rebellion was strengthened when, in France, forces much further to the left replaced the moderates of the first months of the revolution. By 1793, “the Paris masses were for abolition, and their black brothers” engaged in armed rebellion against slavery and French colonialism, “for the first time, had passionate allies in France.”[13] This found its most profound expression on February 4, 1794 when:

… [T]hree emancipationist delegates … a black freedman, a mulatto and a white colon … presented themselves at the Convention [in Paris]. Dufay, the white deputy, delivered a passionate speech … defending the general liberty that had been decreed in St Domingue and urging that … it be extended to the other French colonies. … Dufay’s declarations were met with rapturous applause. Levasseur of Sarthe proposed that the Convention move immediately to abolish slavery in the colonies … The motion was thereupon carried by acclamation.[14]

This was a crucial turning point in the struggle for independence, and ultimately in 1804, Haiti “declared national sovereignty … the second free nation in the Americas.”[15]

For Haiti, independence faced very specific obstacles. Although having won independence in 1804, it faced continuing hostility from the first “free” nation in the hemisphere, the United States, and Haiti’s old colonial master, France. In both cases, the issue was slavery. This might be difficult for readers in the 21st century to properly understand. In our century, slavery is universally seen with repugnance. But in the 19th century, it was an embedded part of international politics and economics. The United States could be considered a “free” nation, even though for the most of its first century of existence as a “free” nation, plantation slavery was a recognized and major part of its economy.

For the United States, the fact of a state based upon the abolition of slavery was a threat to the vast wealth produced on the cotton plantations of the American south by African-American slaves. Thomas Jefferson – revered in most political history as a democrat and freedom fighter – when it came to Haiti, was anything but. He worked hard to abolish all trade between the U.S. and Haiti to contain the contagion of slave rebellion. Jefferson’s attack on trade with Haiti “decimated the Haitian economy, already weakened by 12 years of hard fighting and much destruction.”[16]

The economic isolation of Haiti continued for years. In 1821, France offered to ease economic relations with Haiti if the Haitians agreed to become a French protectorate. The Haitians, of course, refused. But the Haitian government was desperate for international recognition as a way of opening economic doors. “In return for conditional recognition as an independent nation in 1825, President Jean-Pierre Boyer offered France 150 million gold francs … After a show of force by the French navy in 1825, Haiti swiftly borrowed 24 million francs to pay the first instalment. Full recognition by France followed in 1838.”

It was an enormous price to pay and suspect on many grounds. First, “the money was earmarked to indemnify the slave owners and their heirs for their ‘losses’ during Haiti’s revolution.” [17] In effect, the Haitian former slaves had to resort – under the shadow of the French navy – to buying their freedom, something that today would be considered completely unethical. Second – it was far more than the people of Haiti could afford. “The debt was ten times Haiti’s total 1825 revenue.” Third – it was massively out of proportion to any “non-slave” losses incurred by France, “twice what the United States paid France in 1803 for the Louisiana Purchase, which contained seventy-four times more land.”

This is not just of historic interest. The debt – not paid off until the early 1940s – “calculated at $21 billion in current dollars – dwarfs current aid commitments.” In 2004, in the context of the Haitian bi-centenary of independence, then Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide broached the idea of France repaying that $21 billion which would “allow Haitians to develop their economy without the attached strings that keep poor countries dependent on international aid.” [18] But the big news from Haiti in 2004 was not the repayment of this odious debt, but rather the coup d’état (supported by the United States, France and Canada) which removed Aristide from office.

Our debt to Haiti is immense. The barbaric oppression of its slave population before 1804 helped create the great wealth of the European powers, a wealth of which Canada is a fragment. Its successful independence struggle put the issue of emancipation from slavery on the agenda of the Americas three generations before that horrid institution was abolished in the United States. And in response, the great powers have spent generations extorting wealth at such an extraordinary rate, that Haiti remains today the poorest country in the Americas.

It is time that we paid our debts.

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] George P. Clark, “The Role of the Haitian Volunteers at Svannah in 1779: An Attempt at an Objective View,” Phylon, Vo. 41, No. 4, 4th Quarter, 1980: pp. 356-366.
[2] “Simón Bolívar,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Online. (Accessed January 1, 2011). 
[3] Robin Blackburn, “Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the Democratic Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, Volume LXIII, Number 4, October 2006, p. 648.
[4] See also Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (New York: Verso, 1988), pp. 255-258.
[5] CIA, “Country Comparison: GDP – Per Capita (PPP),” The World Factbook (Accessed January 1, 2011).
[6] K. Baker, “Engineer: ‘This was not an earthquake disaster.’” Haiti Rewired. January 28, 2010; and Naomi Klein, “Chile’s Socialist Rebar“,, March 3, 2010.
[7] Blackburn, 2006, p. 646.
[8] James, C.L.R. (1963). The Black Jacobins. New York: Vintage Books.: 57
[9] based on figures in James, 1963: 50
[10] Blackburn, 1988, p. 163.
[11] Blackburn, 1988, p. 20.
[12] Blackburn, 1988, p. 187.
[13] James, p. 120.
[14] Blackburn, 1988, p. 200.
[15] TThomas E. Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, Modern Latin America, Sixth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 335.
[16] G. Dunkel, “U.S. embargoes against Haiti – from 1806 to 2003,” in R. Clark, et. Al., Haiti: A Slave Revolution (New York: International Action Centre), p. 104.
[17] Dunkel, p. 105.
[18] Anthony Phillips and Brian Concannon Jr., “Justice for Haiti,” TomPaine.common sense, September 1, 2006.

Another G20 Summit: The new club of ‘hostile brothers’

The G20 – an entity virtually unknown just two years ago – now seems to be holding meetings every month. While people in Canada were still reeling from the militarized display of force that accompanied G20 meetings in Toronto, Canada, last June, a second summit was held November 11 and 12 in Seoul, South Korea. In general, it is the rhythm of economic slump which is driving these recurring summits. In particular, the Korea summit was fixated on the danger of currency wars between the major powers – in particular between the United States and China.

In the 1990s, there was no notion of the need to expand beyond the G8. The richest and most powerful nations of the world – the United States, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada along with Russia (pulled in for geopolitical reasons after the collapse of the Soviet Union) – formed an exclusive club which arrogantly assumed it could alone determine the course of the world economy.

By 1999, some had started to rethink this. “For the past five years, the global economy had shuddered under a string of massive debt defaults – first in Mexico, and then in Southeast Asia and Russia.”[1] The scale of this crisis, outside the core of the system, was staggering. Russia had collapsed to the extent that through the winter of 1998, hunger stalked the countryside. “Maybe we’ll all die in the winter” said one 44-year old Russian mother trying to cope with her five children in a rural settlement.[2] According to Fareed Zakaria, then managing editor of Foreign Affairs, by July 1998, Indonesia’s economy had “shrunk by almost 80 percent, Thailand’s by 50 percent, South Korea’s by 45 percent, Malaysia’s by 25 percent.”[3]

It took a crisis this severe to reveal the inadequacies of the G8 as a governing instrument – not to speak of the fact that in Indonesia, the crisis had seen not just economic turmoil, but political upheaval. The year 1998 was, after all, the year of the massive uprising which overthrew one of the G8’s closest supporters in the Global South, the dictator Suharto.

It was Canada’s own Paul Martin – then finance minister in Jean Chrétien’s Liberal administration – who, in the wake of the these events, mooted the issue of expanding beyond the G8. His method will not lead to confidence in the processes by which the world is run. April 27, 1999 Martin was sitting in the office of Lawrence Summers – then nominee for U.S. treasury secretary in Bill Clinton’s second term as president. Confronted with economic collapse, the spectre of mass hunger and the threat of revolution, Martin could not find a piece of paper. So – on the back of a manila envelope – he and Summers started to jot down the countries that should be brought to the table to deal with a crisis that was beyond the capacities of the G8. “I would love to say we sat down and ran the numbers on whose GDP was bigger, but we didn’t,” said Martin reflecting on the process. So it was “literally, a back-of-the envelope blueprint for what would become, today, the most powerful forum on economic and political matters in the world: the G20.”[4]

But if the idea emerged in 1999, it mouldered on the back of Martin’s and Summers’ envelope for almost a decade. The 1990’s crisis was centred in the Global South, and while severe, was not felt as profoundly in Washington and Berlin as compared to Jakarta and Seoul. Further, that slump was followed by the long expansion of the first years of the 21st century, which made memories of the late-1990’s crisis fade.

But in 2007, a new slump was gathering steam, and this time it was the G8 countries that were in trouble. While the financial crisis which erupted that year had an initial impact in China, India, Brazil and the other big countries of the Global South, they very quickly recovered, even as the United States, Europe and Japan remained mired in stagnation and slump. The rich countries could no longer pretend to steer the world economy on their own. More to the point, they needed the help of the emerging powers in the world. So it was that the G20 convened its first summit in November 2008. The Financial Times was not alone in calling this a “shift in economic power,”[5] bringing countries like China, India, Brazil and Indonesia to the table alongside the now crisis-ridden economies of the old G8.

But bringing together all the big economies – including the poor countries of the Global South – did not mean that agreement could be reached as to how to solve the problems facing the world economy. The recent South Korea summit was preceded by a storm of controversy over the unilateral actions of the United States. Before the summit was convened, U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke, announced that as at the peak of the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, the U.S. was going to create money out of nothing – a strategy called “Quantitative Easing” – and “push” this new money into the system to try and kick start the U.S. economy.[6] In 2008-2009, Bernanke had “created” $1.2 trillion to rescue the U.S. economy. In November 2010 he announced the second round – QE2 – which would mean creating another $600 billion of “new money.”[7]

Officials in Germany, China and elsewhere were furious. The fear was that this unprecedented creation of money out of nothing would lead to a steep decline in the value of the U.S. dollar, and as a result inflation in the rest of the world. “If the domestic policy is optimal for the United States alone, but at the same time it is not an optimal policy for the world, it may bring a lot of negative impact to the world,” said China’s Central Bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan.[8]

In the 19th century, Karl Marx argued that “the capitalists, like hostile brothers, divide among themselves the loot of other people’s labour.”[9] The tensions between the two hostile brothers staring at each other across the G20 table – the world’s biggest economy (the United States) and the new, as of this year, number two economy (China) – are now defining the problems and difficulties which the G20 has, so far, proved incapable of handling.

Previous: “Currency Wars and the Privilege of Empire
Next: “Message to the U.S. – Blame the wars, not China

(c) 2010 Paul Kellogg


[1] John Ibbitson and Tara Perkins, “How Canada made the G20 happen,” The Globe and Mail, 18 June 2010.
[2] John-Thor Dahlburg, “Hunger in Russia’s Heartland,” Los Angeles Times, 20 October 1998.
[3] Fareed Zakaria, “Will Asia Turn Against the West?The New York Times, 10 July 1998.
[4] Ibbitson and Perkins.
[5] “G20 marks a shift in economic power,” Financial Times, 16 November 2008.
[6] For an explanation of Quantitative Easing, see Paul Kellogg, “Currency Wars and the Privilege of Empire,” Links, 23 October, 2010.
[7] Ellen Brown, “What’s Really Behind Quantitative Easing QE2? The Looming Threat of a Crippling Debt Service,”, 20 November 2010.
[8] “China, Germany and South Africa criticise US stimulus,” BBC News, 5 November 2010.
[9] Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value 1861-3.

Afghanistan – Et tu Bruce?[1]

Bruce Cockburn sang against U.S. imperialism in Guatemala. He sang for the revolution in Nicaragua. He is now singing for Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan. Our movement is weaker for it.

In the 1980s, Central America was in the throes of revolution and counter-revolution. The signature event was the 1979 overthrow of the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, an overthrow led and organized by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). That revolution was bitterly opposed by the Generals who controlled many Central and South American states at the time, and the United States which had long backed military regimes in the region. U.S. president Ronald Reagan, funded a bloody proxy war against the Sandinistas, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. Building solidarity with the Sandinista revolution – and with the other resistance movements in Central and South America – was a central political task for activists in the Global North in that decade.

Cockburn did his part. In 1983 he traveled to Mexico and Nicaragua, “with several other Canadian artists at the invitation of OXFAM, the world hunger organization.”[2] The result was a beautiful and moving 1984 album, Stealing Fire, many of whose songs were inspired by the repression and resistance he encountered on his trip. “Nicaragua,” “Dust and Diesel” and “Yanqui go home” are explicit tributes to the new society being wrenched from imperialism’s grasp in desperately poor and embattled Nicaragua.[3] “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” is the best-known track from the album, famously covered by Bareknaked Ladies.” It is not explicitly political, but when he calls out that you’ve “got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight,” we knew what he meant.

Bruce has now stumbled into the darkness of support for Canada’s war effort in Afghanistan. His brother is a Captain in the Canadian military, and part of Canadian forces in Afghanistan. In early September, Bruce went to the country, visited his brother, and performed for Canadian troops while he was there.

“It’s a long discussion on whether we should be in Afghanistan” he said, “whether anyone should be in Afghanistan … but since we are, and since we’ve gone this far, I don’t think it’s appropriate to leave at this stage.”[4]

This won’t do. Many of us have friends and relatives in Afghanistan. All of us want them to come home unharmed. All of us want them to come home without having done harm to others. But all of us – Cockburn included – have to ask ourselves the hard questions.

Are Canada’s troops – troops that include Bruce’s brother, two of my cousins, one of my close friend’s brother, and thousands of other Canadians either in Afghanistan or on their way – are these troops risking their lives for democracy and freedom?

What if the answer is “no?” What if we realize that the regime Canada is supporting is far from democratic (as the farce of the recent elections has clearly shown)? What if it is true that Canada is there for the same reason the U.S. is there, for the same reason the U.S. was, and is, in Central America – to expand the spheres of influence of the Great Powers in the region? And what if, as a brutal bonus, we conclude, as many military experts long ago concluded, that this war is not winnable?

For people of Bruce’s generation these hard questions might be hard to answer. In the 1980s, the progressive movement in Canada was dominated by “left nationalism.” Thousands in Canada understood the horror that was U.S. imperialism and joined movements to oppose it. But at the same time, many of those same people thought that Canada too was a victim of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. was bad, but Canada was good, peace-loving and democratic.

Cockburn’s confusion on Afghanistan represents the confusion of an older generation, looking to find the “good” Canada exporting its values abroad. Canada is at war in Afghanistan, and Canada is not the U.S., so maybe that makes Afghanistan “the good war,” a war to bring “Canadian values” to a far-off land? And besides, this war was problematic when it was conducted by the evil George W. Bush, but now we have the progressive Barack Obama in the White House. Surely Obama’s war is a good war?

Afghanistan is not a good war. The thing that made Afghanistan the wrong war was not that it was being conducted by George W. Bush – it was the wrong war because it was a war for U.S. corporate power. At the end of the day, that is what Bush represents – and it is what Obama continues.

The bitter reality is, that Canada is not one of the countries oppressed by the United States – it is a partner with the United States in keeping the world safe for corporate profits. They have Exxon and General Motors. We have Magna and Research In Motion. The fact of a border does not magically make “our” corporations any less greedy and avaricious than those in the United States. Our government is in bed with these corporations just as much as the U.S. government is in bed with its own corporations. This is what their democracy looks like, and it is not pretty.

Let’s not choose a “good” U.S. imperialism under Obama over a “bad” U.S. imperialism under Bush. Let’s not choose “good” Canada over “evil” United States. Whether we live in Canada or United States, we live in the privileged Global North that for too long has lived off oppressing the impoverished countries of the Global South.

Cockburn’s signature political song from Stealing Fire was, without a doubt, “If I had a Rocket Launcher.” He sang it to “wild applause” to members of Task Force Kandahar, after which – in a grotesque parody of the song and of Cockburn’s whole anti-imperialist past – he was temporarily presented with a rocket launcher by Task Force Kandahar commander General Jonathan Vance.[5]

Let’s not remember Cockburn for his new role as progressive cover for Canada’s imperial adventures abroad. Let’s remember him for his anti-war, anti-imperialist anthems from the 1980s. Let’s remember the helicopters which bring death and destruction to peasants and the poor in Guatemala, Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here’s your playlist to help in that process.

If I Had A Rocket Launcher
Lovers in a Dangerous Time and as performed by The Barenaked Ladies
Dust and Diesel
Call It Democracy

This article written in memory of anti-war teacher Wayne McCrank, 1960-2009.

© 2009 Paul Kellogg


[1] From “Et tu, Brute?” William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar,” Act III, Scene I, line 77 in Peter Alexander, ed., Tragedies: William Shakespeare (London: Collins, 1971). “Perhaps the most famous words uttered in literature, ‘Et tu, Brute?” (Even you, Brutus?) this expression has come down in history to mean the ultimate betrayal by one’s closest friend.” “Et tu Brute? Shakespearean Quotes,”
[2] “Songs: If I Had A Rocket Launcher,”
[3] Bruce Cockburn, Stealing Fire (Toronto: Golden Mountain Music Corp., 1984)
[4] Canadian Press, “Cockburn visits brother in Afghanistan,” Sept. 10, 2009
[5] Canadian Press, “Cockburn visits brother in Afghanistan