Tuesday, September 16, 2014

ZEDEs Violate Basic Rights of Hondurans

Adapted from the Report of the National Lawyer's Guild Delegation Investigation of Zones for Economic Development & Employment in Honduras, September 14, 2014

In early 2013, the National Lawyer's Guild were asked to witness the elections in Honduras by Honduran colleagues and allies and to document their findings. NLG organized a delegation of credentialed election observers to serve as “International Accompaniers” under Honduran election law. Their delegation concluded that there were serious problems that significantly undermined any assertion that the election was “free and fair” or “transparent.”

As a result of the contested elections, Juan Orlando Hernandez assumed the Presidency. Since then, Hernandez and the Honduran legislature have enacted a number of laws that provide for the concentration of executive and legislative powers at the expense of individual rights and freedoms and they have implemented policies that privatize state resources and functions. 

Photo Credit: Congress’ Last Stand: Privatizations among New Laws in Honduras by Sandra Cuffe (http://upsidedownworld.org)

In early 2014, our colleagues in Honduras asked us to examine the controversial laws and constitutional amendments that facilitated the establishment of Zones for Economic Development and Employment (ZEDEs), also known as ‘charter cities’ or ‘model cities.’

ZEDEs represent a significant expansion of free trade zones in that they facilitate the creation of autonomous privatized city-states  designed to exist independently from the legal, administrative and social systems of the Honduran state. They are investor-friendly enclaves governed by their own laws, courts and tax systems. The ZEDEs, proposed to spur economic growth and jobs, provide the legal basis for the corporate takeover of land within Honduras, in many cases without any prior consultation from citizens and communities that currently occupy those lands.

Given the contentious nature of land titling issues in Honduras and the historical abrogation of citizens’ land claims, many observers fear that the ZEDEs will further erode the rights of marginalized groups in Honduras and escalate repression against those who resist being dispossessed. By relinquishing control of key state functions to domestic and foreign investors, the arrangement allows corporations to circumvent local laws and business practices.

On September 6th, 2013, the National Congress of Honduras passed Decreto No. 120-2013, which created a novel legal structure for Zones for Economic Development and Employment, or ZEDEs. The ZEDE law represents an attempt by nationals and foreigners who support the liberalization of trade and labor rights to introduce an especially aggressive and expansive model of  Special Economic Zones, or SEZs, even more flexible than those that exist in Shenzhen or Singapore. 

ZEDES embrace trade liberalization beyond simple tax and infrastructure incentives: they enable the corporate entities, organizations and individuals who will fund and participate in the zones to structure the social organization itself. This process includes the content of laws, the tax structure, educational, labor and health care system, security forces and other basic elements typically managed by the state.

Many fundamental rights of Honduran citizens who live within the borders of ZEDEs are not protected under the new ZEDE law. These rights include:

  • Article 183 - the right to Habeas Corpus or Amparo20,
  • Article 65 - the inviolability of a right to life,
  • Article 68 - guarantees of human dignity and bodily integrity,
  • Article 69 - the guarantee against the extraction of forced labor,
  • Article 72 - freedom of expression,
  • Article 73 - protections for a free press,
  • Article 77 - freedom of religion,
  • Article 78, 79, & 80 - guarantees of assembly and association,
  • Article  81 - freedom of movement,
  • Article 82 & 83 - the right to a defense, to court access, and to counsel for indigents, and
  • Article 84 & 85 - freedom from non-legal detainment

Chapter I, Article 1 of the ZEDE law, however, does state that Articles 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, and 19 of the Constitution are fully applicable. These provisions define the territorial limits of Honduras, obligate Honduras to international treaties and forbid the ratification of treaties that damage Honduras’ territorial integrity or sovereignty. The remaining sections of the Honduran Constitution, a document of 379 articles, will have only the effect that they are given by an agreement between the Committee for the Adoption of Best Practices (CABP), the independent governing board of the ZEDEs and the corporate promoters seeking to develop the land.

The 21-member CABP, which was announced in February 2014, includes nine US citizens, three Europeans and only four Hondurans. The CABP is dominated by neoliberal and libertarian activists, several with close connections to former President Ronald Reagan. Numerous questions remain concerning this body. It is unclear, for example, if members of the CABP receive a salary or other compensation for their work.

There is no apparent prohibition on CABP members from investing in the ZEDEs themselves or having personal or business relationships with investors, raising conflict-of-interest concerns. The CABP’s broad unchecked powers are also cause for concern. Among other duties, the CABP is charged with appointing (and removing) the Technical Secretary (the executive officer of the ZEDE), who wields both executive and legislative power over the zones. The CABP is also charged with ZEDE planning and development,approving all internal regulations of the ZEDES, and even filling their own vacancies.

Given the lack of oversight by any branch of the Honduran government, the unrestrained powers granted to ZEDEs create a serious barrier to any future challenges. Another problematic provision of the ZEDE law involves the adjudication of legal disputes. The ZEDEs’ autonomous courts have the discretion to adopt legal systems from outside Honduras. Under the ZEDE legal regime, hired jurists who serve at the recommendation of the Judicial Council of Honduras.

A further particularly troubling aspect of the ZEDE law relates to the provisions that allow for the placement of ZEDEs in areas of “low population density,” and in municipalities in the departments adjoining the Gulf of Fonseca and the Caribbean Sea, without prior consultation with the affected communities.

The website identifies 14 areas as potential areas for ZEDEs in Honduras: Punta Castilla and Suco Paulaya, Colón; Puetro Cortes and Bajamar, Cortés; Cuyamel, Cortés; La Cieba, Atlántida; Quimistán, Santa Bárbara; Ocotepeque, Ocotepeque; Gracias, Lempira; Palmerola, Comayagua; Santa Maria de Real, Olancho; various municipalities of the Gulf of Fonseca; and El Triunfo and Choluteca, Choluteca. It is not clear whether any proposals for the creation of ZEDEs in these zones have been received or accepted.

The website also contains information related to the natural and human resources of many of the potential zones. Many communities believe they are being targeted for such investment. For example, the community historic Garifuna community of Rio Negro of Trujillo was knocked down in 2009 for investment, and the ZEDEs have created an increased the fear of such incidents in the future. 

The opacity of the manner in which ZEDEs are being promoted does little to diminish fears. President Juan Orlando Hernandez has recently announced its plans to create an “industrial mining park” in El Corpus, Honduras. There has been no official announcement that this area would is being considered for a ZEDE, the language suggests a special development zone, potentially placing the shelter and livelihoods of residents at risk. These provisions, discussed in greater detail below, represents a significant departure from well-known economist Paul Romer’s original charter cities proposal, and violate international law.

A. The Special Economic Zone

Modern Special Economic Zones, or SEZs, began appearing during the second half of the 20th century. In general, SEZs rely on business and trade regulations that are independent from those of the country in which they are located, with the goal of encouraging commerce and trade. They may focus on a variety of economic initiatives, including ports, production, exportation, resource extraction, and tourism.(Amegual & Milberg, 2008) The primary SEZ of the last two decades is the Export Production Zone, or EPZ, which is mostly dedicated to export-oriented manufacturing and development. The premise behind the creation of these zones is that developing countries will attract export and production oriented corporations through legal, economic, political, and administrative concessions to businesses. (The economic 'mindset' of countries that engage in the robust use of EPZs prioritizes export-processing activities as a way to escape the long-term economic subversion of the global south.)These areas can be specifically limited to a certain, distinct piece of real property, a set of properties owned by a company with an EPZ-type agreement with the local government, or to land owned by the local government. More expansive SEZs include Shenzhen and Hainan in China and the SEZs in Dubai. Honduran SEZs have historically not extended far beyond the “fenced in” model of an EPZ.

Honduras began to experiment with Export Production Zones in 1976 by creating a free zone at Puerto Cortes. (McCallum, 2011) The first zone was created under the authority of the government, which then privatized it in 1987. In 1998, following Hurricane Mitch, the Honduran government declared all of Honduras a Free Trade Zone or FTZ. In the FTZ or EPZ’s, which can be located anywhere in the country, companies are not required to pay import duties on goods and capital equipment, surcharges, selective consumption taxes, or sales taxes. Production and sale of goods inside the FTZ are exempt from federal and municipal taxes. Further, companies do not pay Honduran income tax for 20 years and are not required to pay local municipal taxes for 10 years. Finally, there is no restriction on the use of foreign exchange or the repatriation of capital profits. In 2006, Honduras joined the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that continued the trend towards opening up the Honduran economy to more foreign products. Under CAFTA, Honduras began admitting 80% of US products without tariffs. Within 10 years, nearly all tariffs will be eliminated. (Griswold & Ikenson, 2004) As part of the agreement, 98% of Honduran goods to enter the US duty-free. 

B. The Predecessor to the ZEDEs: Charter Cities and REDs

Paul Romer is a well-known economist who promoted the idea of charter cities as an innovative economic development strategy in his 2009 TED Talk. (Romer, 2009) Romer explained that a charter city contains three elements: 1) a charter to set out the rules of the city; 2) a substantial area of uninhabited land; and 3) partnerships with other nations, including a designated body to control the administration of the city. Romer’s ideas were met with a period of generally positive press coverage, (The Economist, 2011) and he encouraged Honduras to use charter cities to promote economic growth. The post-coup Honduran government was receptive to this suggestion, and passed Honduras’ Special Development Regions law (Regiones Especiales de Desarollo or RED) in 2012.

REDs were to be administered by an oversight board known as the Transparency Commission that would have almost absolute control over the creation, management and policies of autonomous political zones within the country. The REDs were to be funded and managed by investors leveraging foreign capital in order to spur investment, to create development opportunities, to construct the necessary infrastructure, and to streamline the cumbersome process of doing business in Honduras. However, in December 2012, the Constitutional Chamber of the Honduras Supreme Court ruled that the RED law was unconstitutional, a decision that prompted former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo to label the Constitutional Chamber as “traitors.”

Less than two months after ruling on the RED law, the Honduran Congress voted to dismiss the four justices on the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court who had ruled against the law. (Phillips, 2014) The same four justices had also alienated the government with their ruling on a police reform law. Many legal observers, including both Honduras’ own Minister of Justice and Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers characterized this ouster as a second coup given its failure to comply with procedures set out on the Honduran Constitution. (El Heraldo, 2012) Nonetheless, the Supreme Court upheld the removal of the four judges in a later decision. (El Heraldo, 2013)With the National Party in control of Congress, President Lobo selected the replacements for the four ousted judges based on their adherence to a number of free market and other reforms. (Cuffe, 2014)

Meanwhile, despite the Honduran government’s agreement to create a Transparency Commission that included Romer as a member, the government entered into a memorandum of understanding with an investor group without first consulting the Commission. Romer protested, and the government claimed that due to a legal technicality, the Commission was never officially created. As a result, Romer withdrew from the charter cities initiative in Honduras. The current plan for ZEDEs is distinctly different than Romer’s vision, excluding several safeguards he deemed critical to their operation. (Malkin, 2012)

C. Comparison of the Legal Structure of REDs and ZEDEs

ZEDEs are no longer being marketed as the embodiment of Romer’s charter cities. Rather, Mark Klugmann, a former speechwriter for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, describes them as “LEAP” zones that provide distinct legal, economic, administrative and political protections for corporations. (Fund, 2014

Regardless of the nomenclature, there are at least three areas in which the ZEDE model raises greater concerns than Romer’s charter cities model: 

  1. ZEDEs do not present Hondurans with authentic choice because they can be imposed on unwilling communities without any referendum. 
  2. The ZEDE legal regime does not provide for a transition to democratic governance. 
  3. The ZEDE legal regime is based on unprecedented lack of transparency.

1. ZEDE Can Be Imposed on Unwilling Communities

Romer’s vision of locating charter cities only in areas free of inhabitants is absent from the ZEDE law. Romer has stated that “[i]n a charter city, legitimacy derives from residents’ decisions to opt-in to the new rules . . . .” (Fuller & Romer, 2012) To achieve this legitimacy, Romer proposed finding about 1,000 square kilometers of “uninhabited land” on which to locate the city. (Romer, 2009) In his words, “[p]eople can come live under the new charter, but no one is forced to live under it.”

The ZEDE legal regime, however, expressly contemplates establishing zones in inhabited areas. The law specifies that the designation of a ZEDE requires the approval of two thirds of the Congress, and is subject to a local referendum of the area’s existing inhabitants, except in certain designated areas. If the Honduran National Statistics Institute declares the area to have a lower than average population density for a rural area, Congress may impose a ZEDE on any existing communities in that area without even the basic protection of a referendum. This grants the National Statistics Institute the ability to decide when to strip Honduran citizens of their human right to self-determination through democratic governance. 

Further, even a referendum does nothing to protect the “choice” of those who vote against having a ZEDE imposed on their community, not to mention those convinced to vote in favor of a ZEDE through a campaign of misinformation. In addition to low population density areas, areas contiguous to the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Fonseca, including the islands of Zacate Grande and Amapala that are currently undergoing ZEDE feasibility studies are excluded from the referendum process. Both islands are the home to significant longstanding communities.

Additionally, the legal structure of the ZEDE allows land with unclear ownership to be seized by the state, which will hold all land in rural ZEDEs, and contemplates the appropriation of land from owners do not want to sell their land. In short, ZEDEs can be imposed on inhabited areas, undermining one of the basic principles of Romer’s charter cities: the ideal that everyone who lives and works there has chosen to do so.

2. ZEDEs Provide for No Transition to Democratic Governance

The original RED law required the eventual return to democratic governance. Romer appeared to justify the period without democracy by advocating a “vote-with-your-feet” concept instead, whereby all residents of the charter city would have chosen to live there, and thereby chosen to sacrifice whatever democracy exists outside the city for the economic development inside it. The ZEDE law goes even further than the RED law in that it does not provide for any return to democratic governance short of abolishing the ZEDE altogether. Rather, the ZEDE will be permanently governed by the CABP, which its residents have no power to elect. Simply put, an unelected committee will govern the daily lives of Hondurans living in ZEDEs, and residents will have no democratic control
over local governance.

3. ZEDEs Present a Near Total Lack of Transparency

A major distinction between Romer’s charter cities model and the ZEDE legal regime is that the latter dispenses with a Transparency Commission. Romer and others stated that such a Commission would exist under the RED law and they were so certain of its existence that they named its members. (Cowen, 2012) Shortly after Romer left the RED project, Octavio Sanchez Barrientos and Mark Klugmann, current members of the ZEDE CABP, argued that this Transparency Commission never officially existed because the decree naming Romer and four others to the Commission never completed the publishing process in the Honduran Gazette. (Malkin, 2010)

The RED governance structure was based in significant part on the Transparency Commission. The Economist magazine described this body as “[p]erhaps the most important feature” of the model cities project in Honduras. (The Economist, 2011) The ZEDE regime replaces this Commission with the CABP.

In addition, decreased transparency has coincided with increased domestic political support for model cities in Honduras. This may be because the lack of transparency has allowed proponents of model cities to shift their messaging regarding the ZEDEs depending on the audience. Any agreements related to the ZEDEs are not public information (an agreement with the South Korean government to undertake a feasibility study was leaked, and was not presented to the public as a matter of right), so the government can represent to Hondurans a message focused on job creation. At the same time, the government can represent to potential foreign investors a message centering more on the stability of the ZEDEs and the relative difficulty to alter or eliminate them once they are in place.

Though Romer now maintains no formal affiliation with the ZEDE initiative, his previous involvement with the model cities project brought it publicity and lent a degree of legitimacy that the Honduran government needed to bring in international investors. Indeed, Klugmann now seems to suggest that Romer’s involvement was merely a strategic choice by the Honduran regime. (Klugmann, 2013)

Subsequent to passage, a group of more than 50 NGOs challenged the ZEDE law and ZEDE-related constitutional amendments in the Constitutional Chamber of the Honduran Supreme Court. (Peralta, 2014) Lawyer Adeline Ávila Sarmiento presented the case for the plaintiffs in early 2014, offering 16 arguments for unconstitutionality. Sarmiento asserted that the ZEDEs would impact Honduras’ territorial sovereignty and integrity, the nation’s form of government and the public interest. She also contended that only the Honduran Congress has the authority to establish taxes and to create a monetary system. (Peralta, 2014) The challenge was heard by the Constitutional Chamber – the same court that was installed by the conservative National Party as a result of the judicial coup in January 2013 – and not surprisingly, the Chamber unanimously rejected the challenge. 

Guillermo Peña Panting, executive director of the Honduran liberal policy institute, Eleútera stated, “With this decision, the investors, national developers, and interested foreigners…now have the legal backing necessary to proceed forward the project implementation.”

Many of the communities we met with expressed profound concerns as to how ZEDEs would impact their right to vote and to participate in local governance. Community members reported that a number of local mayors had been taken on an all-expenses-paid trip to South Korea to learn about ZEDEs. Members of these communities have not been informed about important realities ZEDEs present: for example, community members asked us if they would still be able to vote for their mayors under a ZEDE, and if so, what power their mayors would have. The answers to these questions are unclear, though it appears unlikely that the position of mayor – or, indeed, of any local elected official – will exist under a ZEDE. Government functions will likely be performed by administrators appointed by the corporations that control the ZEDE and the corporate interests represented in the CABP, stripping the citizens of these communities of their right to democratic governance. What is very clear is that both Honduran society in general and the communities likely to be affected by an eventual ZEDE have not been given information about how and where the ZEDEs will function, and how their civil and political rights will be affected.

D. Conclusion

Conditions for ordinary Hondurans have deteriorated precipitously since the 2009 coup. The government and security forces are plagued by corruption, poverty is pervasive, and Honduras sits at the apex of the global per capita murder rate. Drug, domestic and gang related violence has claimed thousands of lives. At the same time, state-sponsored repression against those organizing in opposition to government policies that contribute to widespread suffering has escalated, creating a climate of fear and impunity. These harrowing conditions are inter-related. Until Honduran citizens can access jobs and a secure livelihood, they will push back against a government that does not democratize economic and social opportunities. In response, the Honduran government will employ lethal tactics to enforce its priorities and suppress dissent.

Honduras is in desperate need of economic development, but development policies cannot replicate decades of neoliberal initiatives that have done nothing to alleviate the suffering of the majority of Hondurans, and served only to enrich the country’s economic and political elites. Against this backdrop, the prospect of ZEDEs raises considerable alarm about the future for the hundreds of thousands of Hondurans for whom the government already fails to provide security, stability and basic human needs. The rough contours outlined by the law itself ZEDEs will deprive citizens of rights guaranteed by Honduran and international law, and the implementation of these zones threatens to encroach on an even broader range of internationally protected rights. Instead of fulfilling its obligations to care for its citizens, Honduras is relinquishing those duties to international investors who are focused on increasing profits, not providing for economic and personal security. The international community must monitor for a potential human rights disaster created when the Honduran government privatizes the state functions that serve as its core organizing principles and obligations.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Peace Activists Missing from Dialogue to Stop Endless Wars in Middle East

The real struggle ahead is not against evil, but against ignorance.

As President Obama and other nations sound the drums increasing aerial bombardments in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and training “moderate” Syrian rebels and possible air strikes against the Assad regime, these same moderate rebels have now struck a ceasefire deal with ISIS to fight against the Syrian government.

Additionally, the family of slain freelance journalist, Steven Sotloff, whose barbaric murder was broadcasted by ISIS, claim that these so-called moderate rebels sold him to ISIS as a hostage for somewhere between $25,000 to $50,000.

How has this terrorist group been able to wield so much power in Syria and Iraq? Since 2011, armed opposition groups in the Middle East, such as ISIS, have received weapons and money from a coalition of countries that include the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to the ANSWER Coalition.

Only a couple of protesters in Lubbock, Texas take to the streets following President Obama's announcement to increase military strikes Sept. 12, 2014

But where are the mass protests against these continued military interventions in the Middle East? Against the covert operations by the US to arm these terrorist groups? Against preemptive military strikes against Syria and Iraq?

National peace organizations such as the ANSWER Coalition and MoveOn.org have been slow and absent to educate and mobilize people against the dire situation in the Middle East.

Pope Francis has now called the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, occupied Palestine, Ukraine and Africa World War III.  And which country is most responsible for the manufacture and trade of weapons all over the world?.. None other than the USA.

Peace activists are now fighting on a global scale to promote and support peace, as human rights abuses do not just impact the Middle East, but also are happening on almost every continent in the world.

Only a movement by the people of the US, whose tax money funds this military industrial complex, will be able to stop the war machine and bring peace to the world. Not an easy feat considering the massive amounts of war propaganda put out by the main stream media and level of misunderstanding that Westerners have about the Middle East, as well as the sale and manufacturing of weapons, all of which has made us complicit in our government's actions.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

My Iranian Wedding

Iran is a country where modernity meets tradition. It is a country of contradictions where the extremely religious can co-exist with the utterly skeptic. Belly dancing, alcohol, men and women dancing together, live music with a female artist – all of this took place in Tehran, the capital city of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on the night of our wedding.

People celebrating at our wedding in Tehran

The wedding industry sector in Iran has partially gone underground due to the strictness of the Islamic republic. For weddings, people have two options – mixed or separated. Separated weddings are fully legal and usually take place at a hotel, where the men and women will be separated on different floors, with the only exception being the groom who can be present with the bride in the women’s section. This is the only allowance in Iran for a man to legally see women in public without their head scarves.

While suits and ties are the standard attire for men, the women usually come wearing carefully tailored dresses made from an assortment of colors, fabrics, and lace and spend most of the day at the beauty salon getting their hair and makeup done. The problem with separated weddings is that the men get bored very quickly, as all of the dancing and lively conversations take place on the women’s floor.

We decided to have a mixed wedding, meaning that we were taking a risk, as it is known that the police can show up anytime during a mixed wedding to shut it down or to take a bribe.

My parents, who got married in the US is 1979, never had a wedding. There aren’t even any photographs of the event, so our wedding couldn’t have been any more different from theirs.

My husband and I met while I was living with my aunt in Iran. He was my friend’s brother. Almost unheard of in Iran and with much consternation from my parents, three years later before our marriage we decided to live together in the small college town in the US where he was studying.
When we decided to get engaged, we had to forgo the proposal ceremony, known as khastegari, because his parents lived in Iran while mine lived in California. Khastegari is a customary ceremony to ask for the daughter’s hand in marriage. Unlike in the US, it’s not just the man who is proposing, it’s his entire family.

The man will come with his parents and close family members to the woman’s parents’ house, usually with flowers and fresh pastries. There will be the first introduction of the families together, and that is when the woman officially accepts the man’s proposal for marriage. The future bride will serve everyone tea, and they will eat and drink while discussing the future wedding plans.

Unofficially, however, the bride and groom have already made up their minds. Unlike in the past, young people in Iran have many resources, such as the Internet, university classes or even cruising down the streets, to meet and get to know each other before the khastegari.

But in the past, the khastegari used to be the first opportunity for the future bride and groom to meet each other. It is said that the bride would be so nervous during that initial meeting that she would sometimes drop the serving tray with tea and spill everything onto the floor. As times are changing, however, this scenario is becoming less and less common.

Since we were living in the US, my husband’s family did most of the arrangements for our wedding, including preparing the invitations and finding a private villa outside Tehran for the wedding.

Most brides in Iran wear the latest western fashion, and my gown was no exception – it was a lace, ivory-colored mermaid gown by Justin Alexander that I purchased with my mother before coming to Iran. My husband, on the other hand, waited until we arrived in Iran two weeks before the date to find a tuxedo.

One week before our wedding, I received some shocking news. The date would have to be changed as one of the owners of the villa had given away the date of our wedding to one of his family members. Apparently, there had been a dispute between the owners, and this was one of the ways to get his revenge. We had no other recourse but to comply, as our contract would not be recognized by any court since it is technically illegal to have a mixed wedding. Also, the religious month of Ramadan was soon approaching which bars anyone from having a wedding.

Our best option was to postpone the wedding for one day, moving it from Thursday to Friday. At first I was very worried, but the others around me, including my husband, didn't seem as bothered. They assured me that the guests would understand since they were used to the uncertainty that goes with living in Iran.

Less than one week before the wedding, we went to sign our marriage certificate along with our parents, an uncle, an aunt and a cousin. An official read from the Koran and when asked whether I would accept, I was obliged to say, “With the permission of my mother, father and elders, yes,” and although I minced my words in Farsi, everyone clapped.

I would have to repeat those same words at the wedding, but only after I was asked three times. The first two times the bride is asked, she is obliged to stay silent while the guests respond that she went out to pick flowers.

Two days before the wedding, we held a henna bandaan ceremony. This ceremony represents the start of the bride’s new life as she leaves her parents’ house to live with her husband. The bride’s family hosts the party, and my aunt had arranged live music and catering for about 70 guests in all.

When the ceremony began, we placed our right hand on top of our heads facing up. My father gave us each a hundred dollar bill which we held in our open hands. Then, my grandmother scooped henna onto the bills. Traditionally, the bride and groom throw the henna-stained money into a group of gathered children, but in our ceremony even the married people participated. One cousin from each of our sides caught the money (and both were married). Following that, we went around to the guests and put a dab of henna on their hands as they wished us well and gave us money.

Our wedding day had finally come, and I woke up early and went with my sister-in law to get my hair and makeup done. When my sister-in-law was getting married the previous year, we went to a beauty salon in the windowless basement of a shopping mall where something like ten brides were being worked on at the same time, along with a hundred other women. This equated to a nauseating amount of hair spray, makeup and driers being run all at the same time. After that experience, I had asked her to arrange a private session, so she took me to the home of the makeup artist.

Another concern I had was that my makeup would make me look unrecognizable, as brides in Iran are infamous for caking on makeup in order to stand out from the other guests. Instead of highlighting their natural beauty, the stylists tend to treat their faces as blank canvases.

But I made it very clear that I wanted the most natural look possible, and during our session twice I had to insist that the stylist not make my lips larger than their natural size. While I had never worn quite so much makeup before in my life, the stylist told me that it was simple for Iranian standards.

Getting my makeup done in the home of my stylist

When my hair and makeup were complete, I put on my gown and the groom came to pick me up. He stood there in the front yard of their home in his tuxedo, neatly shaven with his hair done, and I even detected very subtle makeup on his skin.

But there was no time to waste. The next stop was our photo shoot, where we shot a short film and took pictures in a studio and a large garden in the middle of Tehran. Six o’clock came when we finally finish and went back to the studio to rest before the big event.

A picture from our photo shoot at a garden in Tehran

Around seven we were finally on our way to our wedding. The groom had rented a BMW convertible, and we drove with the top down. Every time we passed cars on the road the people would honk and wave to us, and some would even dance in their cars. I didn’t have to cover my hair with a veil because brides the police don’t bother brides and grooms in their car. Miraculously, my hair kept its form, a testament to the amount of hairspray in it.

We drove to a small town about an hour outside of Tehran. We passed some factories on the highway and some small stores where people were sitting outside on the lawns watching the cars drive past and recounting the day’s events. We turned down a dry, dirt road with a long stretch of walled properties that were impossible to see over.

When we entered one of the gates, an oasis appeared and everyone was there to greet us as we stepped out of the car and entered the garden.

A view of the garden as we entered

We passed under an arch of pink and white flowers and greeted everyone that lined the path in the garden. Then we were given esphand to burn over hot coals to bring us good luck and ward away any curses. We made our way over to the altar, or sofreh, which had different items that symbolized marriage and good luck, such as our rings, the Koran, a mirror, candles, fruit, honey and other sentimental things.

Burning esphand to ward off the evil eye

The guests surrounded us as we sat at the head of the sofreh. A long cloth was held over our heads as my uncle read from the Koran and married women ground sugar over our heads in order to bring sweetness to our marriage.

The altar that we sat in front of for our wedding ceremony

When I whether I accepted, I had to stay silent the first two times as others answered that I had gone out to pick flowers. A permeating custom in Persian culture is the ta’arof, where one never accepts an offer at first, even if it is marriage.

Both of use accepted and there was a lot of cheering. We gave each other our rings and fed each other honey. My husband then gave me jewelry that his mother bought and I was to wear that night. Then, the guests came to give us their wedding gifts, which were announced out loud. The most common gifts at weddings are gold coins or money.

The rest of the night was filled with dancing, laughter, and food. Every table in the salon had an assortment of fruit and pastries placed on them, while waiters came around with tea, coffee and other fresh fruit juice. And if you could find the right person, then you would also be able to get a shot of vodka.

The whole night was also being filmed, so there were times when we had to excuse ourselves from the dancing to shoot a scene. One scene involved a shower of fireworks going off as we walked along a path, which I was scared would catch my dress on fire.

Our wedding manager, who wanted to make up for cancelling the original date, told us that there would be a surprise. One of the surprises was a belly dancer, which everyone gathered to watch. The other was four people dressed up as gold and silver human statues like the ones you see standing motionless at Union Square in San Francisco. Only these statues also became the back up dancers of the band.

The cake cutting ceremony has some modern twists such as the knife dance where a young woman dances with the knife to cut the cake, and she will not hand it over until the groom gives her enough money. We had five knife dancers at our wedding.

When the knife dances were over, we still couldn't cut the cake until we danced to a song with the lyrics, “Should they cut it or not?” while the audience responded, “No!” so that we had to keep dancing until permission was granted. Finally, we counted down and as we began to cut the cake -- more fireworks, which made it a very epic event indeed.

Cutting the cake as fireworks explode

After more dancing, people were directed to an open buffet where we served beef and chicken kebab, grilled lamb, and different types of traditional stews, rice, salads and desserts.

After dinner, the party started to wind down and even though some still wanted to dance, most guests started to leave. The studio had printed out copies of a photograph from the photo shoot on hardboard and we distributed them to guests to take home as a souvenir. They had also displayed two enlarged photographs of us which were displayed during the celebration.

And like the blink of an eye, it was all over. I was exhausted, and my head hurt from taking probably over a thousand photographs. But, everything had been spectacular and no one had really complained. It seemed that everyone had left satisfied, and only after did people call to thank us and say that it was one of the best weddings they had ever been to.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Longest Blockade of Israeli Ship in History ZIM ship turned away from SSA in Oakland

By Eyad Kay

For four days straight the San Francisco Bay Area community blocked the Israeli ZIM ship from unloading at the SSA. The rank and file workers of ILWU local 10 also stood against Israeli Apartheid by honoring the pickets and letting the ship go from the SSA terminal from Saturday August 16 until Tuesday.

Photo taken from Block the Boat for Gaza‎

On Saturday, thousands of community members showed the world that Oakland does not welcome racism, apartheid or Zionism, from Ferguson to Palestine. People flooded the streets and marched towards the Port only to discover that the ZIM ship decided to stay at Sea rather than dock and be confronted by the power of numbers. The ship attempted to dock and unload on Sunday, but within a half hour’s time hundreds of people organized community pickets requesting that workers to stand with us on the side of justice and not unload the Apartheid ship. And as ILWU rank and file always have, and as they did during South African Apartheid, they demonstrated their solidarity with the global fight against oppression and honored the community picket. The following Monday and Tuesday saw both an organized call to action as well as autonomous protests determined to keep the ship from being unloaded. These efforts coupled with worker solidarity continued the success of the weekend’s total blockade of the ZIM ship.

On Tuesday the people declared a historic victory for Palestine as Oakland held down the longest blockade of an Israeli ship. Not only did they block the boat, but they also showed the world that racist exclusionary state of Apartheid Israel has no place in the Oakland port, and will soon find that it has no place on any port on the West Coast. After being blocked from unloading at the SSA Terminal, the ZIM ship was forced to leave and unload at another Terminal where it was met with protests by autonomous activists. This even further delayed the unloading of the ship.

From the use of tear gas to the training of police by Israeli military, Oakland feels firsthand the brutality of Israeli war-making. And Palestine knows too well the role the US plays in facilitating the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian people. From the policing and militarization of our local communities perfected with Israeli tactics of repression to the billions that the US provides Apartheid Israel, the connections are clear and are made for us. And over the last four days the people showed the world that we stand shoulder to shoulder from Palestine to Oakland to Ferguson as we struggle bring down every wall, every Apartheid system and every racist state.

Palestine will be free.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Iranian Cheetah Goes to 2014 World Cup

Iran's national soccer team will dash to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with the Asiatic cheetah, the symbol of strength and perseverance, represented on its jerseys. Just as the odds are stacked up against both the team and the cheetah, neither of them is going to give up without a fight, as it is estimated that only 50 Asiatic cheetahs remain in the wild.

Credit: Official FIFA Online Store 2014

The story of Iran's cheetah and the vital efforts of conservationists to save it is an example of collaboration at all levels of local, national and international stakeholders. With the National Football Federation of Iran now joining in the conservation efforts, more attention will be given by the mainstream media about the plight of the Asian cheetah.

The rise in international diplomacy is also likely to contribute to sustained conservation efforts for wildlife within Iran's borders. On a recent trip to Iran, FIFA president Joseph Sepp Blatter mentioned in a tweet, "Met Iran VP Masoumeh Ebtekar. I learnt how the Iranian Cheetah is endangered species and will be new symbol of national team, raising awareness."

Soccer fans can help contribute with a purchase of the Iranian national team soccer jersey. One euro from each jersey that is sold will be donated to Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project to help with conservation efforts.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Honduras Delegation - The Struggle for Democracy, Human Rights, & the Environment

On August 10, 2013 a delegation arrived in the capital Tegucigalpa from the USA and Canada to embark on a journey that documents the human rights crisis in Honduras. Dozens of people shared their stories of resistencia (resistance) for human, land and environmental rights against a repressive regime that currently reigns over the country following the 2009 military coup d'etat. 

Below is the first set of a series of documentary footage from our journey:

Among the many people we visited, who are resisting repression and brutality by the current ruling Nationalist Party, included:
  • Indigenous Lenca activists who are defending their native land in Rio Blanco from a hydro-electric dam project; 
  • Garifuna communities, descendants of escaped African slaves, living along the coasts of Triunfo de la Cruz and San Juan whose land is being usurped in order to build resort hotels; 
  • Campesinos in La Panama in the Aguan Valley who have been terrorized by and are seeking justice for the brutal murder of Gregorio Chavez from multi-million dollar land baron Miguel Facusse; 
  • A worker led community cooperative named MUCA (united campensino movement) who are fighting to keep from being evicted from their land; 
  • Political prisoner Isabel "Chavelo" Morales being held in La Ceiba prison; 
  • Displaced communities in Nueva Esperanza who are being repressed by iron oxide mining interests; and others in the struggle for human rights and justice.

The first stop after arriving in the capital was the small, rural community of Siria Valley which has been torn apart and lives destroyed due to the mining operations of a Canadian-based gold company named Goldcorp. "For [the] mining company to come and for their vision of wealth and money, we lost a community," says Roberto, who lost his daughter due to environmental contamination of the water and who has also suffered health impacts due to the mining operations.

"At first, we had the problem that was psychological which was caused because we were evicted from that area where we had lived. And then after, another impact was the issue where the company dug a well for human consumption of the water, which was later found to be contaminated with arsenic and caused a lot of problems in the community," says Roberto.

Currently, the Honduran people are struggling to etch out a democracy following the most recent elections on November 24, 2013. However, signs do not seem hopeful and the ruling National Party refuses to relinquish power by any means necessary. For the most current information on the election results visit Rights Action.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Black Friday Protest in Solidarity with Walmart workers in Lubbock

While Walmart keeps its wages low, and its workers are dependent on government assistance, guess who has to foot the bill? The hypocrisy is that while conservatives complain about federal government spending, yet at the same time don't support living wages for dead-end jobs, this means that the federal government must spend more to support those who can't afford health care or who depend on food stamps.

And these corporations are raking in billions, while they sell us useless items made by sweat shop labor and make us obese with their industrialized, fatty foods. One solution is to avoid these mega-super stores like Walmart or McDonald's, to name a few, and to support your local economy by shopping at local retailers.

Lubbock Texas, a city of less than 250,000 people, has four Walmart superstores, with an additional two others in nearby  towns. This attests to the level of poverty and gentrification that exists in this small, university town.

Just three people showed up at the Walmart on 4th and Avenue Q on Friday, November 29 in solidarity with OUR Walmart Black Friday actions across the nation. However, in a city this small, three people can actually make a difference!