The former death squad fighters who are now training as yoga teachers

Lila MacLellan writes: In New York or L.A., it’s pretty common to learn that a yoga teacher used to be a dancer, an actor, or even a former Wall Street banker. In Bogota and Medellin, the same is true. Except that here, the teacher may also be an ex-member of a Colombian death squad.

Since 2010, a local organization called Dunna: Alternativas Creativas Para la Paz (Dunna: Creative Alternatives for Peace) has been gradually introducing the basic poses to two groups for whom yoga has been a foreign concept: the poor, mostly rural victims of Colombia’s brutal, half-century conflict, and the guerilla fighters who once terrorized them.

Hundreds of ­ex-militants have already taken the offered yoga courses. A dozen now plan to teach yoga to others.

To stay calm, yoga-teacher-in-training Edifrando Valderrama Holguin turns off the television whenever he sees news broadcasts about young people being recruited into terror groups like ISIL. Valderrama was 12 when he was recruited into the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was given a gun, basic training and a heavy dose of leftist ideology. “In the mountains, if I saw someone who was not part of our group, I had to kill him,” he says. “If I had questioned the ideology of the FARC, they would have called me an infiltrator and killed me.”

Now 28, Valderrama lives in the city of Medellin. He works afternoon shifts for a supplier to one of Colombia’s major meat companies, and practices yoga at home in the mornings. Until the program stopped last year, he attended Dunna’s yoga classes, rolling out his mat with former members of both the FARC and Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) — a paramilitary army he once fought against. Although initially surprised that he could feel so much peace lying in corpse pose, Valderrama now hopes to become a yoga teacher, so that he can introduce the healing asanas to ex-militants in Colombia, or even overseas.

Samuel Urueña Lievano, 46, was raped and then recruited into the rival AUC by a relative when he was 15. “They used my anger and hatred to get me to join. I have so much remorse for the things I did during that period,” he tells me as he begins to cry.

Urueña, now a law student in Bogota, takes medications to manage his anxiety and still has nightmares. He calls yoga his closest friend. Practicing the poses every day for two hours has made it possible for him to handle occasional feelings of panic, impatience and frustration, he says. “It has helped me identify who I am. It has given me myself back.” [Continue reading…]

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The rise in killings of Peru’s environmental and land defenders

Anti-logging campaigner, Edwin Chota, was murdered in September.

A new report by Global Witness sheds light on what’s driving the high number of killings of environmental defenders in Peru, less than a month before the country hosts the UN climate talks in Lima. Peru’s Deadly Environment calls into question the commitments of Peru to protect its carbon-rich forests and the people who live in them, in light of unfettered illegal logging, disregard for indigenous land claims, and new laws that favour industrial exploitation over environmental protection.

The report comes on the heels of the killings of four indigenous leaders in Ucayali in September, including prominent anti-logging activist Edwin Chota and three of his fellow Ashéninka leaders from the Peruvian Amazon.

“The murders of Edwin Chota and his colleagues are tragic reminders of a paradox at work in the climate negotiations,” said Patrick Alley, Co-Founder of Global Witness. “While Peru’s government chairs negotiations on how to solve our climate crisis, it is failing to protect the people on the frontline of environmental protection. Environmental defenders embody the resolve we need to halt global warming. The message is clear, if you want to save the environment, then stop people killing environmental defenders.”

Peru is the fourth most dangerous country to be an environmental defender, behind Brazil, Honduras and the Philippines. At least 57 environmental and land defenders were killed in Peru between 2002 and the present day, more than 60% of them in the last four years, according to new Global Witness data. Most of these deaths involved disputes over land rights, mining and logging. 72% of Peru’s indigenous communities still have no way of demonstrating their land tenure rights, and over 20 million hectares of land claims have not yet been processed. [Continue reading…]

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Why Latin American leaders are standing up to Israel

Laura Carlsen writes: Since the Israeli offensive against Gaza began, images of Palestinian children murdered in their homes and schools and bombs exploding in neighborhoods have outraged people around the globe. Many governments have followed the United States, making empty declarations against the violence, as if the death dealing were equal and not overwhelmingly of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli bombs and bullets.

But as the U.S. government backpedals to reconcile its unconditional support of Israel with basic principles of human rights and Europe waffles, one region stands out in its opposition to the siege of Gaza: Latin America. Leaders from across the region have condemned the Israel Defense Forces’ attacks on Gaza as excessive and unfair.

“I think what’s happening in the Gaza Strip is dangerous,” Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff told the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. “I don’t think it’s genocide, but I think it’s a massacre.”

Chile, currently a member of the U.N. Security Council, stated that the Israeli government “does not respect the fundamental norms of international humanitarian law.”

Uruguayan President José Mujica condemned the attacks in a weekly radio show. “The loss of perspective in the response is undermining Israel’s prestige and, I think, sullies the marvelous history of the Jewish people. Hatred and revenge do not work to build civilization,” he said. Bolivia’s Evo Morales went further, saying, “Israel does not guarantee the principle of respect for life and the basic right to live in harmony and peace in the international community,” adding that Israel was “passing onto the list of terrorist states.” [Continue reading…]

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Why Latin American diplomats are pulling out of Israel

GlobalPost reports: Latin American nations are expressing their revulsion at the bloodshed in Gaza — and squarely pinning the blame on Israel.

Chile, Peru and El Salvador said this week they are recalling their ambassadors from Israel for consultation. That was after Ecuador and Brazil did the same last week.

And on Wednesday, Bolivian President Evo Morales declared Israel a “terrorist state.”

Lots of world leaders have denounced the violence on both sides of Israel’s 3-week-old war against Hamas in Gaza. Palestinian casualties have reached 1,328, according to Gaza health authorities, while the Israeli death toll is close to 60.

But the Latin Americans appear to be leading a diplomatic storm, flying envoys out of Tel Aviv.

Recalling an ambassador for consultation falls short of breaking off relations outright, but it can lead to that.

So, why are they doing it?

In a statement on Tuesday, Chile condemned Hamas for launching rockets at Israeli towns, but slammed the Israel Defense Forces’ bombardment of Palestinian civilians.

“The Israeli military operations in Gaza … do not respect the fundamental norms of international humanitarian law, as is demonstrated by the more than 1,000 civilian victims, including women and children, as well as the attack on schools and hospitals,” the Chilean statement said.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff described the Israeli offensive as a “massacre” and accused the government in Tel Aviv of responding “disproportionately” to Hamas violence. [Continue reading…]

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Video: What was the U.S. role in Operation Condor and thousands of murders across South America?

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Hugo Chavez 1954–2013

Greg Grandin writes: I first met Hugo Chávez in New York City in September 2006, just after his infamous appearance on the floor of the UN General Assembly, where he called George W. Bush the devil. “Yesterday, the devil came here,” he said, “Right here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of.” He then made the sign of the cross, kissed his hand, winked at his audience and looked to the sky. It was vintage Chávez, an outrageous remark leavened with just the right touch of detail (the lingering sulfur!) to make it something more than bombast, cutting through soporific nostrums of diplomatese and drawing fire away from Iran, which was in the crosshairs at that meeting.

The press of course went into high dudgeon, and not just for the obvious reason that it’s one thing for opponents in the Middle East to call the US the Great Satan and another thing for the president of a Latin American country to personally single out its president as Beelzebub, on US soil no less.

I think what really rankled was that Chávez was claiming a privilege that had long belonged to the US, that is, the right to paint its adversaries not as rational actors but as existential evil. Latin American populists, from Argentina’s Juan Perón to, most recently, Chávez, have long served as characters in a story the US tells about itself, reaffirming the maturity of its electorate and the moderation of its political culture. There are at most eleven political prisoners in Venezuela, and that’s taking the opposition’s broad definition of the term, which includes individuals who worked to overthrow the government in 2002, and yet it is not just the right in this country who regularly compared Chávez to the worst mass murderers and dictators in history. New Yorker critic Alex Ross, in an essay published a few years back celebrating the wunderkind Venezuelan conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, fretted about enjoying the fruits of Venezuela’s much lauded government-funded system of music training: “Stalin, too, was a great believer in music for the people.”

Hugo Chávez was the second of seven children, born in 1954 in the rural village of Sabaneta, in the grassland state of Barinas, to a family of mixed European, Indian and Afro-Venezuelan race. Bart Jones’s excellent biography, Hugo! nicely captures the improbability of Chávez’s rise from dirt-floor poverty—he was sent to live with his grandmother since his parents couldn’t feed their children—through the military, where he became involved with left-wing politics, which in Venezuela meant a mix international socialism and Latin America’s long history of revolutionary nationalism. It drew inspiration from well-known figures such as Simón Bolívar as well as lesser known insurgents, such as nineteenth-century peasant leader Ezequiel Zamora, in whose army Chávez’s great-great-grandfather had served. Born just a few days after the CIA drove reformist Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz from office, he was a young military cadet of nineteen in September 1973 when he heard Fidel Castro on the radio announce yet another CIA-backed coup, this one toppling Salvador Allende in Chile. [Continue reading…]

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Is Iran finding new friends in Latin America?

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