Oxford Dictionaries defines terrorism in very simple terms, “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” In turn, they define ‘politics’ as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.”
With these terms laid bare, it seems inherently misguided if not fatally flawed that groups of human beings seeking merely to preserve their land, their access to basic life-giving forces such as clean water, air, and perhaps soil to grow food or sustain basic sustenance-giving livestock, could be categorized or defined under either of those terms.
This begs the question: why, then, are so many Indigenous Peoples – who are not seeking to govern others, achieve power over others, or initiate violence with others – being branded as terrorists?
The larger reality is that such a simple definition is not accepted universally; and, there are obstacles to reaching an international consensus in part because there are political interests served by keeping the word semantically ambiguous. In a bizarre, meta twist, the very word, terrorism, has been weaponized to terrorize people.
At national and international levels, the words ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist(s)’ are routinely dropped to strike fear into people’s hearts about a certain person or group of individuals; and, it is a quick fix strategy to bypass nuance. To be fair, much of the general populace is often not concerned with such nuance, being far too busy going about their daily lives. It’s when this tendency is taken advantage of to insert prejudice and build political currency towards a cumulatively larger agenda that it becomes so problematic. This strategy has been used ultimately to achieve nothing less than manufactured consent to wage unwinnable, decades long, wars. Bluntly put, the very usage of this word has a body count.
Nowhere is the word terrorism more glaringly used and abused as it is in rhetoric surrounding activity in the Middle East. People who have found themselves disenfranchised and marginalized within their own territories have been carelessly labeled terrorists in a manner which causes much of the global populace to glaze over the injustices foundational to their lived experience.
The fact that Ahed, a child of only 16, who has never known life outside of a military occupied territory, is being indefinitely detained by the Israeli government under accusations of terrorism — after ‘slapping’ an Israeli soldier — is criminally obscene. Yet, much of the world will only hear the word, ‘terrorism’; and all of a sudden, even the indefinite detainment of children becomes acceptable…or, at least palatable enough to ignore and go on with their lives.
The power in the ambiguity of this word has not escaped the attention of political interests in other parts of the world, however; and, the phenomena has in recent years begun to migrate, so to speak, into political rhetoric at the convenience of governments in the global south – especially, in regards to the politically sensitive nature of dealing with Indigenous Peoples who stand between the state and the waning resources of struggling, extractivist-based economies.
An all too familiar example, for those keeping an eye on this trend, are the Mapuche in Chile and Argentina. The Chilean government has been cracking down on Mapuche resistance aimed to preserve their own rightful territories and natural resources for decades with violent and oppressive tactics as escalatory as: detainment and murder.
In this very recent video footage, a Mapuche woman directly charges the government of Chile of shooting at Mapuche children and youth.
Transnational corporations have stolen much of the Indigenous Mapuche’s ancestral land in Chile and Argentina. Monoculture crops, now ubiquitous throughout Mapuche territory, further rob the land of its biodiversity and strip nutrients from the soil, leaving it barren and polluted by pesticides for decades and beyond. Such corporate outfits have militantly occupied unacceptably sizable proportions of Mapuche land. Yet, the Mapuche are expected to stand by and watch idly as their natural resources – such as timber – are poached, pillaged, and hauled away right in front of their very eyes.
In this new geopolitical era, the antiquated lines of socialism and capitalism are falling away as the delusions shaded by their dogma continually manifest into inversions of the same twisted paradigms. Either transnational corporations or monied interests directly control the land (which is then patrolled by paramilitaries) or governments are controlled by transnational or otherwise imperialistic monied interests and they employ their own national armed forces in return. A latter case being the Ecuadorian troops deployed against Indigenous Peoples defending their territories there from Chinese mining interests. (Yes, Ecuador is the country that enshrined the ‘rights of nature’ into their newly revised Constitution not too long ago). A mirrored case would be Chiquita’s paramilitaries being deployed in Colombia, where they have massacred or internally displaced innumerable communities of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Peoples.
Resistance from the Mapuche has been consistent for decades, but as their natural resources grow even more endangered, the push back to protect what is left is being met with intensified violent resistance and oppression from the state. Chilean Minister of Interior and Public Security, Mario Fernández, has labeled the Indigenous resistance…not the entities who are invading and stealing the Mapuche’s rightful resources, of course…as terrorism. Speaking about the issue in the lower house of Chilean Congress he said, “Of course [it is] terrorism, of course. Who denies that?”
Well, to answer his question…the politically neutral entity known as the Oxford Dictionaries, for one…would by nature of their definition of the word be in denial of that.
Another answer might simply be: reality. Framing Indigenous resistance for land and resource rights as terrorism is a malignantly concocted mass illusion, and perhaps even delusion. It is extremely hard to believe that the people who utter this dangerous nonsense even believe it themselves. Of course, money has been known to cause extremely delusional thinking, such as the glittering mirage of ‘trickle down economics’ or the naive idea(lism) that counter-revolutions could be sustainably fueled by extractivism or narco-trafficking.
Another ongoing, but now escalating, conflict between monied and imperialist backed government forces and Indigenous Peoples seeking to protect their land and resource rights is happening in the pluri-ethnic, Indigenous governed, autonomous territory of Moskitia – which Nicaragua has tried to annex into their territory for decades. More recently, the tattered remnants of the Sandinista party as it now exists (by some accounts, in name only) under Daniel Ortega has pursued a more insidious path towards their historically more violent and overt attempts to nationalize an area – Moskitia – that is far richer in natural resources than anywhere else in the small, relatively impoverished country.
The phrase ‘Iran-Contra Affair,’ is tossed around in domestic and geopolitical discussions in the western hemisphere with knowing tones and conspiratorial glances which tend to betray a mostly innocent but ultimately limited understanding of the holistic nature of what really happened there. Yes, the U.S. was — through domestically illegal means — backing an armed group (the Contras) to fight a communist insurgency (the Sandinista). And yes, this was part of the Cold War. However, the Sandinista were also being financed and otherwise backed by a large imperialist power, namely the Soviet Union. Although, there were rumors that the Soviet Union did not consider the Sandinista genuine Marxists even then.
U.S. citizens were rightly self-critical in holding their government accountable to its own laws; and, compassion for victims and innocent bystanders in any armed conflict should be a basic tenet of human nature and the pursuit of justice and human rights. However, the Soviet backed Sandinista rebels killed or internally displaced tens of thousands of Indigenous Peoples during this civil war and were hardly the heroic, romantic campesino victims many well-intentioned sympathizers fetishized.
If it wasn’t clearly visible then, it is clearly visible now. Recently, under Putin, Russia has reinvigorated relations with Nicaragua (that includes a noteworthy remilitarization), which is now pretty much ruled by an Ortega family dynasty – who themselves hold court with the same elite that surrounded the infamous General Somoza. Tellingly, as Ortega grabbed the reins of power he himself quickly fled the original atheistic Sandinista dogma to realign with one of Latin America’s most original colonizers, the Catholic Church. And with the national slogan touting ‘Christian-Socialist Solidarity’, Nicaragua is more than flirting with theocracy – not to mention the neoliberal authoritarianism the Chinese canal interests seem to be importing into the national political ethos.
And then there’s Guatemala…a country still struggling to recover from the ‘scorched earth’ military tactics of the slippery and notorious war criminal, Rios Montt. Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala were conflated with Marxist rebels during their civil war just as Nicaragua’s Indigenous Peoples were conflated with right wing Contras – when really both were merely stuck in the midst of a battle between forces who, in all reality, would both try to further colonize them next.
Current U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, has recently criticized Latin America’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples as a whole and had some specific words for Guatemala. She told the Thomas Reuters Foundation, “Criminalization [of resistance] is really about using the justice system to stop Indigenous Peoples from pursuing their own activities and their own actions against projects that are destructive to them.” Getting even more specific, she cited examples of Indigenous activists there who are being faced with charges of terrorism, and ‘economic sabotage’, merely for defending their land and community resources.
Of course, the United States is also left holding this bag. Right before things began to cool down around the Standing Rock protests, things were really heating up. A leaked document showed the FBI Terrorism taskforce was investigating water protectors…but this is old news. Now, they’re investigating Donald Trump, who greenlighted the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL. Something about correlation not equaling causation? We’ll leave that to the future to unfold…
There is power in being able to call the shots before they are fired, however.
IC was on the ground in Nicaragua in February of 2016 investigating the conflict zone there where probably at least 99.99% of Nicaraguans themselves would fear to – and have never – tread. While visiting several intensely isolated Moskito communities, isolated even in the microcosm of Moskitia itself, there was a disturbing disconnect accompanied by ideas held by people who remembered the United States coming to their aid during the Cold War. There was much talk of a desperate uprising against the socialist state who was starving them out in terms of social programs and allowing Mestizo ‘Colonos’ to by proxy violently place their ancestral communities under siege. IC reported the danger then (both to the communities and eventually to our readers) of Nicaragua moving in and branding these community defenders as terrorists; and, this has now tragically come to pass.
Speaking of correlation not equaling causation, Miskito warriors defending their territory (physically and politically) from the nationalist ideations of the Sandinista, does not reduce their intentions to any point where they may intersect with right wing Contras or U.S. imperialism in general. This is an infantilizing view of Indigenous Peoples which insinuates they are mere pawns moved about by whatever political currency is offered them. And, it indirectly ‘others’ them in their attempts to protect their own interests, making them more vulnerable to floating, ambiguous labels such as ‘terrorism’.
In Moskitia, their history of culture, alliances, and disputes (external and internal) is extraordinarily complex; and, only they can truly tell it like it is. And like the rest of the world, they’re busy getting ‘woke’ to the complex realities and repercussions of myriad, sometimes compounding eras of colonial contact that go back much farther than contact with the U.S., to eras of negotiation, conflict, and cooperation with Great Britain, Spain, and even Jamaica.
The Mapuche and the Moskito – or the pluri-ethnic nation of Moskitia, to be more precise on the latter – are two key struggles the human rights community needs to keep an extremely hawkish eye on.
Genocide is a heavy, heavy term. And, it often gets hastily dismissed when applied to more marginalized communities such as Indigenous Peoples. However, terrorism is a heavy term as well…and, how is it that no one has ever called Hitler’s Nazis terrorists?
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