Facing the Grim Reaper, Once Again: Buddha, Galileo and the Hospital Industry
June 18, 2014
By Roger Burbach
On the Ides of March I awoke in a cold sweat from an apocalyptic nightmare in a hospital bed at the University of California, San Francisco medical center. I trembled and could not suppress a cry as I recalled my dream of General Augusto Pinochet rising from his tomb as a skeleton. Donned in his military cap and cloak, he looked like the skeletons that are prominently displayed in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. He carried the scythe of the Grim Reaper and began marching through the streets of Santiago, Chile, slaughtering those that crossed his path. He went to the chambers of Judge Juan Guzman who had prosecuted him, hacked him in half with the scythe, then proceeded to the offices of Juan Pablo Cardenas, the editor of the leading resistance magazine during the dictatorship, destroying desks and typewriters before cornering Juan Pablo. He next sought out my friend Fernando Zegers, a lawyer who worked at the Vicariate of Solidarity, a human rights organization founded by Cardinal Raul Silvia Henriquez. Seeing a picture of the now departed Cardinal on the wall, Pinochet cursed at it saying “you hid Communists under your bed.” Desperately I called on everyone I knew in Chile and abroad to help resist the General’s onslaught, but to no avail. Even when my comrades managed to break his bones, the skeleton reassembled. Finally Pinochet spotted me and as he approached with his raised scythe I awoke from my traumatic nightmare.
I had entered the UCSF hospital ten days before. Afflicted with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer, I had undergone a stem cell transplant in late December, 2010 that placed me in remission until August of last year. Then I began taking targeted-therapy cancer drugs and medical steroids to contain the malignancy, but these drugs took a toll on my physical well-being. My hemoglobin counts dropped precipitously and virtually every month I needed a red blood cell transfusion. I joked with my friends that I had become a vampire. On the morning of March fifth, I awoke at my apartment in Berkeley feeling exceptionally weak and feverish. I called my oncology doctor at UCSF, Jeffrey Wolf, and he made an appointment for me to have another blood transfusion. Managing to get into my wheel chair accessible Honda Odyssey mini-van, I drove to UCSF where I collapsed in a hospital bed and got the transfusion. Staying overnight, I felt even worse the next morning. Dr. Wolf ordered a battery of tests, and when the results came back, they revealed that in addition to my three existent maladies, a spinal cord injury, cancer, and Parkinson’s disease, I also had pneumonia, a urinary tract infection and histoplasmosis, a fungal disease. I was given antibiotics and additional transfusions, but my hemoglobin counts continued to decline and I lapsed into a state of semi-consciousness. Delirious, I could not even articulate a complete sentence and had begun to act irrationally. Dr. Wolf asked me a few simple questions: Did I know where I am? What year is it? Where did I live? I had no answers. Dr. Wolf feared that the histoplasmosis had spread to my brain and decided to do a spinal tap to find out. Knowing I was incapable of making decisions (I refused to take vitamins), he turned to my son Matt to get his approval. The results of the tap indicated I only had histoplasmosis in my bone marrow and it could be contained with medication. But my mental state did not improve.
My friends and family feared for my life and rallied around me. Allie, my daughter who is finishing nursing school at Napa Valley College, sat by my bedside, using her smart phone to research my new maladies and the drugs I was taking. Matt’s mother, Patricia Flynn, who works at the ACLU in New York called me. Separated for many years, we are still very close. She declared in a strong, assertive voice, “Roger you have faced similar challenges in the past and I know you will persevere this time.” Cecile Earle, my long time friend who was away in Florida, called and talked slowly and clearly, trying to help me reconstruct my ability to converse, but to little avail.
As in the case of my collapse after the stem cell transplant, Dr. Wolf saved my life. One of the outstanding hematological doctors in the United States, we have become friends over the years. Unlike many doctors who tell their patients what to do, he engages in a dialogue with me, discussing my condition and my own research on novel therapies for multiple myeloma. During my stay at UCSF, he checked in on me virtually every day, and gradually my condition bottomed out as the antibiotics kicked in, bringing the pneumonia and urinary tract infection under control.
But my mind had been devastated and my synapses were firing at a lethargic pace. I could remember little and had difficulty carrying on a simple conversation. I also needed physical therapy as my body was wasted. The only way I could get out of bed and my room was if someone plopped me in a wheel chair and pushed me around. To restore my health I needed to go to a rehabilitation center. In past physical crises I had gone to the Alta Bates Herrick rehabilitation hospital in Berkeley. This time however, a representative of the Jewish Center hospital located in south San Francisco appeared, arguing forcefully that I should come to her hospital. Someone from Herrick also weighed in and I made it clear I would rather go to Herrick because it is near my home and friends. But Herrick backed off, conceding to the Jewish Center, saying I could come to Herrick during the last stage of my rehabilitation. I felt like the rehab centers were bidding for my body. On Friday, April 11, I was put on a gurney and driven in an ambulance to the Jewish Center on Silver Ave., a block from San Francisco’s bustling Mission Street. I was given an ample private room with a big window and a pleasant view of ornamental plants and trees. The architectural design of the part of the hospital where I stayed is extraordinary. The door of my room opened on to a large circular walkway with a sky lit atrium in the center. I felt like I was living in a light palace. I still had hallucinations in the early days of my stay at the center. Around dawn as I hovered between sleep and waking, I would enter into a trance and imagine that I was in an enormous corridor of light that started in Managua, Nicaragua where I had been several months before, visiting my old comrades from the days of the Sandinista revolution. We organized a small seminar to discuss utopia and politics. I lodged on the fourth floor of an apartment-hotel with a spectacular panoramic view of the city and Lake Managua. From there the light corridor extended to my apartment in Berkeley, which has a southern exposure with windows opening on to a courtyard. Next, it flowed to the place where I was staying, and then extended far out over the Pacific Ocean. I did not feel I was in the Jewish center. I felt I was on a Utopian island off the coast, resting and relaxing before I began my next journey along the corridor of light. The physical therapists, the nurses, the staff administrators, indeed the entire work force at the Jewish Center was a potpourri of diverse ethnic origins, reflecting the more general trend in the United States of an aging white population benefiting from an immigrant work force. The largest contingent had Philippine roots, while there were also Central Americans, Mexicans, Russians, Ukrainians, and even Nepalese. For the majority English was their second language. I felt as though I was in the Tower of Babel, as many reverted to their native language when they talked among their particular national or ethnic group. My physical and occupational therapy went smoothly. My biggest challenge was reconstructing my mind and memory. Always good at recollecting phone numbers, some from over forty years ago, I began by dialing the numbers of my current friends and by going over the numbers, names and email addresses listed in the electronic address book on my ASUS laptop. Amazingly whole blocks of my memory began to fall into place. Before I went to sleep I also read a few pages of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream, an historic science fiction novel I had started reading at home prior to my medical crisis. Galileo, often considered the first scientist, used mathematics to calculate the orbits of the planets and four moons of Jupiter to prove the earth circles the sun. In response, the Catholic Church threatened to burn him at the stake for denying that God had placed the earth at the center of the universe. In response he declared: “Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the Universe.” Although I am a non-believer, I opine mathematics is the language of the brain.
It is generally accepted that a glass or two of wine is good for your health. The hospital offered a glass with dinner, which I requested. It was an undrinkable Manischewitz, a sweet kosher wine. I had my son bring me a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon as needed. One evening a nurse walked into my room and saw me pouring a glass of wine. The next day, Eric, a hospital administrator came to see me. He said “I hear you have alcohol in this room.” I crossed my fingers and said “No, I do not.” The same day he called my daughter Allie and told her: “Your father is unruly and drinking in the hospital.” Allie responded: “That’s my father. Thanks for telling me.” At the beginning of the last week of April, Summit Alta Bates called to ask me if I wanted to go to their Herrick rehabilitation facility. I responded with an enthusiastic “yes”, and a week later I was set to leave for Berkeley. According to the rules, I was supposed to be transferred in an ambulance, but Alta Bates and the Jewish center argued over who should pay the costs. I offered a solution. I would have a friend take me there in a wheelchair-accessible van and, reluctantly, they agreed. He showed up at the hospital just before noon to help gather my few possessions, and when we got outside he handed me the keys to my Honda Odyssey. I first drove to my apartment at Redwood Gardens in Berkeley to check my mail and to put my finances in order. At about 4:30 I received an anxious call from Herrick asking what had happened. I told them the truth – that I was taking care of my financial affairs and would be there shortly. Using my power chair because there was no long-term parking for my van at the hospital, I hung my tablet, laptop, and a few clothes in a couple of backpacks on the back of my wheelchair and took a 25-minute trip in fourth gear down to Herrick. When I arrived, the staff and nurses were still a bit miffed, but those who knew me from my previous stays were glad to see me, saying they had reserved my old room with a great view of the Berkeley hills. My rehabilitation immediately kicked into high gear. Herrick has an excellent staff of physical and occupational therapists and I worked closely with Michael Mack, an Asian-American who I believe is the best physical therapist in the world. I was also assigned a speech therapist, Joanna. My first thoughts were why do I need a speech therapist? Joanna patiently explained that even though I have a slowly advancing Parkinson’s, my voice will get lower and my sentences tail off. Vocal exercises to raise my voice tone and strengthen my diaphragm could mitigate and even prevent these symptoms. I accepted, but jokingly told her “I already have a commanding way of speaking, and if my voice gets any louder, I’ll lose all my friends.” On a warm sunny afternoon, we went outside to practice next to the parking lot. One of my exercises involves starting at a low pitch, raising my voice to the highest tone possible and holding it for ten seconds. I speculated people might think I’m crazy, but Joanna said “this is a hospital after all.” Sure enough, after about three long crescendos, a driver with an ambulance with the back door open came up to us and said, “Can I help you?”
One day when I was working out in the rehab gym with Mike, an impeccably well dressed man walked into the room accompanied by four others who were similarly well dressed and all-business like. He introduced himself as Chuck Prosper, the Chief Executive Officer of the Alta Bates Summit complex that includes the Herrick and Oakland campuses as well as the main facility located at Ashby Ave in Berkeley. He explained he was there with other board members to survey Herrick. While we talked, my mind flashed on a recent article in the New York Times pointing out that the CEO’s of insurance companies and hospitals receive the highest pay and compensation packages in the medical industry, followed by hospital administrators, and finally doctors who are the most highly trained in the medical world. “The biggest bucks are currently earned not through the delivery of care, but from overseeing the business of medicine,” says the Times. Prosper, I have since learned, earned $843,402 in 2012 after receiving a 40 percent increase in 2011. Since then, no figures are available, although it is reported he received double digit increases in 2013 and in the current year. Prosper has slashed the medical work force and services on the Summit campuses. On January 15 of this year, the militant California Nurses Association led a picket line at the Ashby hospital to protest the number of layoffs, job restructuring, and service cuts. In my stay at Herrick, I found the nurses, the therapists, and even the floor mopers, to be incredibly hard workers. Miranda, an elegant looking Latina nurse who I befriended, told me that in her shift from 7 am to 3 pm, the number of patients she has to take care of has jumped from 8 to 11. “The call button lights from the patients are continually on as they need medications, toilet care assistance, bed sheets changed, help getting out of bed, blood pressure and pulse taken, and meals served.” She noted that management has resisted unionization at Herrick, although the main Ashby campus and the one in Oakland are unionized. Prosper and other CEOs are following in the policy footsteps of August Pinochet when he ruled Chile. In the name of neo-liberalism, the dictator cut health care spending, closing public clinics and hospitals, and in those that remained open, slashing the salaries of the medical personal including doctors. Health care insurance was privatized, with people offered a “choice” of companies, much like the United States does. No single payer option was offered just as it is not in the United States today. Pinochet would be envious of how US hospitals have engorged their revenues, often charging high fees and billing Medicare. Another New York Times article headlined: “Hospital Charges Surge for Common Ailments, Data Shows.” Using the most recent data available it says, “Charges for some of the most common inpatient procedures surged at hospitals across the country in 2012 from a year earlier, some at more than four times the national rate of inflation … Charges for chest pain, for instance, rose 10 percent to an average of $18,505 in 2012, from $16,815 in 2011. Average hospital charges for digestive disorders climbed 8.5 percent to nearly $22,000, from $20,278 in 2011.” The Summit Alta Bates complex is in the forefront of these increases. Astoundingly, it billed Medicare for procedures in 2012 at almost twice the national average. My final experience with the hospital industry came on the day of discharge from Herrick. As I live 1.2 miles from the Herrick campus, I offered to take my power chair home and return with my van to pick up my belongings. I pointed out that if I took an ambulance there would be no room for my power chair. The discharge manager said that it was contrary to official hospital policy. On April 22 a driver from ProTransport showed up in my room saying he had a wheel chair accessible van awaiting me down stairs. Accompanied by Miranda, we went down to the van. On our way she received a cell phone call saying that the same company had sent a gurney to my room to take me home in an ambulance-like van. I refused to go back up stairs and as I was driving up the ramp two men with the gurney showed up. The muscular looking driver insisted I had to transfer to the gurney and get into the ambulance replete with oxygen tanks, electrical heart shockers, and blood pressure units. A medic would sit next to me to insure I did not croak on the way home. The driver called company headquarters which backed him up, demanding that I take the ambulance. The accessible van would take my wheel chair separately. Now locked down in the van in my wheelchair, I refused to budge. As a last gambit, the driver asked me the same questions as Dr. Wolf did during my delirium; Where did I live, what day of the week is it, etc. Passing with flying colors of course, I was home in ten minutes. I later found out the van cost $80 while the ambulance ambulance would have cost $270. Dave, the parking attendant in front of the hospital who I have known for years, says, “most of the medical vans that show up are from ProTransport. It appears the management of Summit has a special contract with the company.” As one might expect, the employees are poorly paid. Starting pay for ambulance drivers and medics is only $10-12. The company grosses $40 million dollars a year. I could find nothing on the owners or the salary of the CEO. This is not so much an age of ambulance chasers, referring to lawyers who profit from bringing suits over injury liability, as it is a time of ambulance profiteers as part of the hospital industry. During the last week of my stay at Herrick I began planning to follow the light corridor I had envisioned over the Pacific Ocean, to Hilo, Hawaii to coincide with my birthday on June 18. I am accompanied by my sister Ann, whose companion of over a decade. Jon Busateri, died in February of a heart condition in a Milwaukee hospital. We are both recovering from our traumas. In Hilo, Tom Wright greeted us, a fellow high school classmate from Watertown,Wisconsin who has retired to Hawaii after teaching for thirty-five years at the Buddhist Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan. Who knows here out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean I may become an atheist practicing Buddhist searching for an inner light after spending my life in quest of the “light” of an utopian revolutionary society. Or perhaps I will do both if I can keep my blood cancer and other maladies at bay.
*Some of the identities of the individuals mentioned in this article have been altered to protect their privacy.
To read more about Roger Burbach’s travails, get the prologue and first two chapters of his forthcoming book: Fractured Utopias: A Personal Odyssey With History. Receive this and help defray the editorial and promotional expenses by donating $3.00 or more to CENSA, a non-profit organization.
By making a small donation to CENSA, you can get the prologue and first two chapters of Roger Burbach’s forthcoming book: Fractured Utopias: A Personal Odyssey With History. Receive this and help defray the editorial and promotional expenses by donating $3.00 or more to CENSA, a non-profit organization.
Corporate Murder in Brazil: Landless Rural Worker Shot by Security Company Hired by Multinational Syngenta
January 13, 2014
By Roger Burbach
In the Brazilian state of Paraná, Valmir Mota de Oliveira of Via Campesina, an international peasant organization, was shot twice in the chest at point blank range by armed gunmen on an experimental farm of Syngenta Seeds, a multinational agribusiness corporation. The cold blooded murder took place on Sunday, October 21 after Via Campesina had occupied the site because of Syngenta’s illegal development of genetically modified (GM) seeds. Via Campesina and the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST), the main Brazilian organization involved in Via Campesina’s actions, are calling the murder an execution, declaring, “Syngenta used the services of an armed militia.”
Meet General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, General Augusto Pinochet’s Heir Apparent in Egypt
July 26, 2013
By Roger Burbach
Last July 4, the day after the military coup in Egypt that toppled President Mohamed Morsi, the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.” It appears the business newspaper is getting its wish.
A Cuban Spring?
April 10, 2013
by Roger Burbach*
Published in the NACLA Report on the Americas, April 2013
This is a fruitful period of experimentation and debate in Cuba. It is now almost seven years since Raúl Castro replaced his brother Fidel, first as interim president in 2006 and then as president in 2008. Under Raúl, the country is taking steps to transform the economy, and a critical discussion is erupting over the dismantling of the authoritarian Communist model. Julio Díaz Vázquez, an economist at the University of Havana, declares: “With the updating of the economic model, Cuba faces complex challenges . . . in its social and political institutions. . . . The heritage of the Soviet model makes it necessary to break with the barriers erected by inertia, intransigence, [and] a double standard.” He adds, “These imperfections have led to deficiencies in [Cuba’s] democracy, its creative liberties, and its citizens’ participation.”1
Chavez Renewed Latin America and Revived Socialism
March 6, 2013
By Roger Burbach
Published in The Progressive, March 6, 2013
Hugo Chavez cut a wide swath on the international scene, more than that of any other leader in the recent history of Latin America, putting forth a vision of a world based on equitable relations among nations and peoples. His rise to hemispheric prominence began at the third Summit of the Americas in April 2001 in Quebec, Canada when the newly inaugurated George W. Bush attempted to ram through the Free Trade Area of the Americas that was to extend from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego in South America.
It was there that I first saw Chavez whose warm and charismatic persona stood in sharp contrast to Bush’s smug and arrogant demeanor. Of the thirty-four hemispheric heads of state in attendance, only Chavez refused to agree to the summit’s declaration calling for the implementation of the free trade zone by 2005. Chavez stance concurred with that of over 50,000 demonstrators in Ottawa who were protesting the devastating impact of free trade agreements and the economic policy that under-girded them, neoliberalism.
Cuba, A Society In Motion
June 26, 2012
New America Media
By Roger Burbach
June 26, 2012
In Cuba change is in the air. But such change should not be read as an end to the revolution.
“The United States and the exile community are dead wrong if they think that regime change will take place at any time in the near future,” said Julio Diaz Vazquez, a professor at the Center for Investigations of the International Economy at the University of Havana.
Whether one talks to government and Communist party officials, university professors, or simply to people on the street, it is clear that in Cuba, socialism is very much alive and well.
Mortality and the Utopian Quest
February 10, 2012
By Roger Burbach*
It’s been about a year since I posted an article on Censa’s web site Global Alternatives. Some of you have written me, inquiring what has happened. The simple truth is that life is catching up with me. Twenty two years ago I suffered a back injury in Nicaragua that put me in a wheel chair. Then in 2004, while on a return trip to Nicaragua I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. an incurable blood cancer. The prognosis was that I had three to five years to live. I defied the odds, actively pursuing and participating in a number of promising clinical trials that have kept me alive. By late last year, however, the chemo-like drugs had taken their toll. My last treatment had me flying to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona once a month to see a doctor for 20 minutes in order to pick up my designated drug.
On winter solstice of last year I elected to undergo a stem cell transplant at the University of California at San Francisco medical center. I expected to be out in mid-January but the treatment didn’t go as planned. I wound up spending four months in hospitals and convalescent centers, experiencing some dark days in a state of delirium. I had trouble conversing with friends, often unable to utter a complete sentence.
In my delirium I had a primordial dream. I traveled backwards in history, with each year ticking away on an enormous grandfather clock. The swing of the pendulum opened a window into each year of my life. If I dared to jump through the window I could perhaps gain a year or stop time itself.
On my journey back through time 1989 stood out as a particularly traumatic year. I relived the moment when a humongous wave of the Pacific Ocean that I was trying to body surf threw me face down into the retreating undertow, busting my back and sucking me out into the sea. I couldn’t keep my head above water and was on the brink of drowning when a fisher boy in his teens came and dragged me on to the beach.
My accident occurred as Nicaragua and much of Central America were caught up in their struggles for a revolutionary utopia. I had worked with the Sandinistas since 1978, writing on the revolution, advising the Nicaraguan government on US foreign policy, working with an agricultural think tank on agrarian reform issues, and collaborating with solidarity organizations in the United States.
By 1989 the US backed counterrevolutionary war had taken its toll on Nicaragua. People were more concerned with their day to day survival than with building utopia. The economy was in tatters with shortages in food, basic commodities, and medical supplies. The hospitals in Managua were under supplied and under staffed. Paralyzed from the waist down I was put in a sweltering hot room with a plummeting blood pressure that caused the doctors to fear for my life. After a week there I was flown out in a medivac plane headed for Berkeley. We made an excruciating stop over in El Salvador where the guerrillas had launched a major offensive against the government. The airport was partially closed, and the military took five hours to clear our plane for departure. The heat and the humidity were overwhelming.
In Berkeley I spent almost three months in the hospital, first in intensive care and then in rehabilitation. Concern with my own life and recovery was punctuated by the rapid unfolding of history that year, particularly the Chinese democratic movement in Tienanmen Square. I lay in bed watching a TV suspended from the ceiling, seeing a brave man single handedly stop a column of tanks in their tracks, as thousands of demonstrators were forced to flee the military crack down in the square. Next in November came the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the upheaval in the Soviet bloc. Those of us who considered ourselves socialists and participants in national liberation struggles had to rethink our political philosophies and our very lives. The utopia of state socialism had collapsed.
Within months of my accident I was traveling again, this time to Cuba, mainly to undertake physical rehabilitation at the country’s excellent treatment centers. I also wanted to see how the Cuban revolution was faring in the midst of the global crisis of socialism. The collapse of Soviet assistance had dire consequences as everyone on the island had to tighten their belts. For the first time since the triumph of the revolution in 1959 there were cases of malnutrition. The country had entered a “special period” as the leadership proclaimed.
From 1990 to 1992 I took a couple of trips to the Soviet Union and eastern European to try to understand what had happened to socialism. I naively believed that a renovated socialism, free from state and party control of the economy and society, would take root in the region that had challenged the capitalist world for decades. But where ever I went—Moscow, Kiev, Budapest, Prague, Belgrade, Warsaw, and Berlin—I found that people were mainly interested in getting the goods and commodities that the “free market” supposedly offered. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were the new icons, not Mikhail Gorbachev or any other leaders of the Soviet past.
With my historic utopias fractured, I returned to my “roots,” to Latin America to work, travel and write. Slowly the left began to rebuild in the 1990s, placing its hopes more in the emergent social movements than in political parties. The Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexcio marked the advent of a new kind of revolution, one in which the people took control of their local communities and questioned state power while using the internet to spread the news around the world of the advances and difficulties they faced. Then in late 1999 as the millennium drew to a close it appeared for a moment that we might have regained the initiative. Hundreds of organizations, from Zapatistas to Anarchists and Teamsters descended on Seattle, shutting down the conclave of the World Trade Organization. We blocked the entrances, calling for an end to free trade and neoliberalism. It was an inspiring moment.
A global protest movement took hold. Tens of thousands of demonstrators converged on the Summit of the Americas in April, 2001 in Ottawa, Canada to denounce the negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Demonstrators next challenged the capitalist leaders at the G-8 meetings in Genoa, Italy in July, 2001, forcing the heads of state to hold their meetings on naval ships stationed off shore. Underlying these protests were the World Social Forum meetings that were held every year starting in January 2001. Utopia had reappeared, this time under the banner “Another World is Possible.”
But our hopes for a new world were rudely dashed on September 11, 2001, as the dogs of war were unleashed and a ferocious US Empire undertook a crusade half way around the world. The fascist sounding governmental agency, Home Land Security, became the vehicle for suppressing individual freedoms in the United States while the CIA and special forces detained, tortured and even murdered untold numbers of people in foreign lands.
I tried to contribute to the resistance, broadening my own research beyond Latin America, co-authoring “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire.” The manuscript went to the printers on January 1, 2004, and I took off on a bus trip around South America, going from Santiago to Mendoza, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Porto Alegre and Rio de Janeiro. Friends along the way told me I looked pallid. I ignored them and flew on to Managua, where I became deathly ill. At first I thought it was food poisoning, but then a young doctor who had been trained in Cuba told me I had multiple myeloma.
I refused to let my new malady deter me, continuing my travels and writings as I went to Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile. With global attention focusing on the conflicts and upheavals in the Arab world and Central Asia, Latin America largely faded into the background. However for the past decade the social movements and many of the continents leaders have been debating and pushing for new alternatives that offer hope in a world ravished by imperial wars and economic disasters. Often referred to as “the pink tide”, new left of center governments, have taken office in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela and now Peru. The process of change varies widely among these countries, but what unites them is a series of social programs and reforms that question the neoliberal paradigm.
An historic leap for the region took place in late February 2010, when representatives of 32 countries including 26 heads of state from the hemisphere met at the Mayan Rivera near Cancun to call for the founding of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Notably excluded were the United States and Canada. While most participants were reluctant to say it would replace the Organization of American States, President Evo Morales of Bolivia captured the sentiment of many countries when he proclaimed “Whenever the United States is present, democracy is not guaranteed, peace with social equity is not guaranteed.” Even right of center president Felipe Calderon of Mexico expressed his firm support, proclaiming CLACS “must be a priority.” In a sign of their commitment to a genuinely independent entity, the gathering unanimously appointed Washington’s most vociferous critic, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, to host the next summit in July, 2011 that will approve the principles of organization and unity.
The call for a new socialism is part of the political and social renaissance that is stirring in Latin America. On January 30, 2005, Hugo Chavez, while addressing the fifth annual gathering of the World Social Forum, proclaimed: “it is necessary to transcend capitalism … through socialism, true socialism with equality and justice.” Chavez went on to tell the roaring crowd of 15,000 at the Gigantinho stadium in Porto Alegre, Brazil: “We have to re-invent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.” This marked the inception of what is now referred to as “socialism of the twenty-first century,” a banner that has now been raised across Latin America, signifying the profound process of change sweeping the region. The leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador have also proclaimed that socialism is the only viable alternative to capitalism.
Aside from the experiment in communitarian socialism in Venezuela, the call for socialism in the rest of the hemisphere is more of an ideal than a practiced reality. But the fact is that for the first time since the demise of the Soviet bloc socialism is appearing on the horizon and is part of the political discourse.
Globally we have entered into a period of great turbulence and incertitude, of momentous changes, fraught with dangers and calamities. But there are also opportunities for us to swing the pendulum of history in our favor. With 6.9 billion homo sapiens on the planet it is perhaps inevitable that we will move from one crisis to another.
Globalization under the aegis of transnational capital is the antithesis of utopia. It destroys communities, indigenous populations, local beliefs and customs and offers consumerism and commodities as the immediate be all and end all of human existence. We live in a world of fractured utopias, but the forces from below continue to rebel and construct new narratives out of the ruins.
As I slipped in and out of delirium in the San Francisco hospital, the real world captured my attention on the small TV screen that hung from the ceiling in my bedroom. First in Tunisia and then in Egypt, demonstrators took to the streets and urban squares, demanding the removal of the autocratic leaders that had dominated their countries for decades. Spreading to Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, the peoples of these countries were driven by their own primordial and utopian dreams as they called for democracy, freedom, equality and dignity.
There is not one utopia, but many utopias. The desire for utopia is pervasive in virtually all societies. In the Middle East, the struggle for utopia is first and foremost a desire to get rid of the monarchical and dictatorial regimes and to implant democracy and liberty. It will be tribal based in countries like Yemen, in Bahrain it is the desire of the Shiites to regain their freedom and liberty. For Egypt, utopia is an end to corruption and democratic elections in which Muslims, Coptic Christians and secularists can peacefully determine their future.
For Latin Americans the desire for utopia has moved beyond the controlled democracies that are dominated by the elites. The social movements, particularly the indigenous ones, call for “Buen Vivir,”a world in which people live in harmony with all forms of life. For the Landless Movement of Brazil, utopia is the access to land and resources that allow for full communal development with schools, agricultural research centers, and medical facilities. Ollanta Humala’s victory in Peru reveals that the Pink Tide is still rising in Latin America. The oligarchic and racists elements that have dominated Peru for centuries have been dealt a decisive blow as the country tries to construct its utopia in the geographic heart of the ancient Inca empire.
My primordial dream in the hospital reflected my desire to turn the clock back in order to have more time to explore the cosmos. I wanted to cheat death, to go back as far as I could. I finally arrived at my very birth, in a prehistoric cave in the time of the Neanderthals. There I began my life again, in another time, another epoch. The swing of the pendulum had opened a window to the future.
In the real world, despite a difficult convalescence, I was given a new future with the stem cell transplant. Doctors tell me I can look forward to a “good quality of life” for another couple of years or so, or even conceivably a cure. My quest for utopia continues. I want to participate as long as possible in the shaping of our world. I cannot join the camp of the pessimists who believe that the world is headed for disaster, perhaps even an apocalyptic ending. The global battle against the “dark side” will be complicated and difficult, but the human species over the millennia has displayed amazing resilience and creativity, even in the twentieth century when we experienced two world wars, a global economic depression, a holocaust and the unleashing of nuclear power. The future is completely unpredictable, but it belongs to those who persevere and dare to struggle.
*Roger Burbach is working on a new book with Michael Fox and Fred Fuentes for Zed Books, “Challenges to US Hegemony: Social Movements, Populist Leaders and Socialism in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela.” He is also in search of a publisher for “Fractured Utopias: A Personal Odyssey With History.”
The Global Revolt and Latin America
January 6, 2012
Two thousand and eleven was a year of global protest and revolt. The Arab Spring, the indignados movement of Spain and southern Europe, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States captured the world’s attention. Latin America also played a role in this global tumult: with the student upheaval in Chile, the Gandhian-like citizens’ campaign against state and narco terrorism in Mexico, the indigenous led uprising in the mining regions of Peru, and the grassroots agitation in the Bolivian social movements that brought Evo Morales to power. These movements are highly diverse in their social and political composition, and they are anti-systemic, raising fundamental questions and challenging the existent order.
At the tip of the South American continent, Chilean youth rocked the country with massive demonstrations starting in May. The largest social mobilization since the fall of the Pinochet regime in 1990, the student movement is demanding “free and quality education” for everyone. Under the dictatorship much of education was privatized and today 70% of university students attend private institutions.
The Global Revolt of 2011 – A Turning Point in History
November 21, 2011
By Roger Burbach
Editor’s Note: Occupy Oakland is part of a global movement that is questioning the basic structures of the political and economic system to an extent not seen since 1968. Whether it will succeed in changing these structures is unclear. But it has already created something far more powerful: a global shift in consciousness.
OAKLAND, Calif.—“Shut It Down,” “No More Shipping for the 1 Percent” and “Death to Capitalism” proclaimed some of the banners near me as I joined thousands of demonstrators who converged on the Port of Oakland on a sunny afternoon. This city is part of a global movement that has changed the terms of the political debate, stealing much of the thunder from the Tea Party movement and shaking governments around the world in a way not seen since the 1960s.
In Assange Asylum, A Stand Against Neo-colonialist Policies
August 20, 2011
By Roger Burbach and Marc Becker
New America Media
August 20, 2011
Rafael Correa, the president of one of South America’s smallest countries with almost 15 million inhabitants is taking a dramatic stand against Great Britain, Sweden and the United States by granting political asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
Last Wednesday the Ecuadorian foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, told the press in the country’s capital, Quito: “Today we have received from the United Kingdom an explicit threat in writing that they could assault our embassy in London if Ecuador does not hand over Julian Assange.” Correa in an address to the Ecuadorian people on Saturday said, “I don’t know who they think I am or what they think our government is. But how could they expect us to yield to their threats or cower before them? My friends, they don’t know who they are dealing with.”