This week in history: August 23-29

25 years ago: Strike wave in Latin America

In a three-day period beginning August 28, 1996, walkouts, food riots and general strikes took place in five Latin American countries. In several countries, these events were among the first actions of sections of the working class after the collapse of longstanding military dictatorships.

Public school teachers in Uruguay started the wave of protest actions when they declared a 48-hour strike in primary schools and universities and a 72-hour strike in secondary schools, in support of students who had occupied 25 secondary and technical schools demanding more education funding.

There was rioting and looting in the Caribbean port city of Limon in Costa Rica on August 27. One man was shot and killed and three others were wounded, as gunfire broke out between police and city residents. The fighting began when the police tore down barricades erected by shipyard workers protesting a government decision to privatize the port facilities.

In Paraguay, the country’s major unions and peasant associations staged a nationwide eight-hour strike August 27, demanding a 26 percent pay raise for workers and land grants to the peasants.

The strikers also demanded a halt to the planned privatization of old-age pensions and the Yacyreta hydroelectric dam. The strike was the fourth since President Juan Carlos Wasmosy came to power in 1993, each more violent than the last. More than 10,000 police were deployed in Asuncion, the capital city, but public transport was halted and mass demonstrations held despite the crackdown.

Tens of thousands of hospital workers in Chile walked out August 27, shutting down the country’s public health system for 13 hours. The government of President Eduardo Frei Montalva declared the strikes illegal, giving itself the authority to fire workers at will. Other strikes were set to begin by miners at the Salvador copper mine and by school teachers.

Finally, on August 28, more than 1 million public school employees carried out a 24-hour protest strike in Venezuela, shutting down offices of the federal government, the 22 state governments and 330 municipalities. The strike was called over the government’s failure to pay a promised bonus to offset the devaluation of the national currency, the bolivar, and against the firing of 70,000 public employees over the previous three months by the government of President Rafael Caldera.

50 years ago: Marcos assumes emergency powers after Plaza Miranda bombing

The week of August 23, 1971, Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos issued a proclamation giving himself emergency powers, including suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Days earlier, on August 21, three grenades had been thrown onto the stage of a Liberal Party campaign rally, killing nine and injuring nearly 100 more. The week would see police raids and mass arrests targeting Marcos’ political opponents, and left-wing groups in particular.

The Plaza Miranda bombing and the declaration of emergency powers by Marcos presaged his declaration of full martial law one year later. The establishment of what was essentially a dictatorship under Marcos, backed by the United States, destroyed the myths of independence and democracy that had been cultivated after the US nominally ended colonial rule in 1946.

The Miranda bombing set off an immense political crisis in the Philippines. Initially, many suspected that the bombing was the result of a plot orchestrated by Marcos himself to both directly attack his opponents in the Liberal Party and to provide the justification for martial law and his effective abolition of the fragile constitutional democracy.

While this was the end result, recent research by Dr. Joseph Scalice has found that it was not Marcos who orchestrated the bombing, but the Stalinist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The bombing was a desperate and deranged attempt by the CPP to shift public opinion against Marcos and toward their supposedly progressive ruling-class allies in the Liberal Party.

Stalinist leader Jose Maria Sison also believed that any crackdown from Marcos would benefit the CPP. Sison in fact welcomed the police-state measures, having on many occasions declared his belief that fascism and martial law are “good for revolution.”

The plan backfired miserably. Marcos used the political confusion caused by the CPP to brutally suppress all political opposition. Marcos would rule the Philippines until 1986.

For a detailed review of the bombing and its political ramifications readers are encouraged to watch Scalice’s lecture, “Three Grenades in August: Fifty Years since the Bombing of Plaza Miranda in the Philippines.”

75 years ago: Political assassination sparks peasant uprising in the Philippines

On August 24,1946, Juan Feleo, a longtime political activist and peasant leader, was stopped by a group of armed men near the Filipino city of Gapan, before being dragged away and murdered. The killing was widely viewed as a political assassination commissioned or endorsed by landlord groups, and possibly ordered by Philippines President Manuel Roxas. The murder sparked a rebellion that would last almost a decade.

Feleo had been a leading member of the People's Army Against the Japanese, known by its abbreviation in Tagalog, the Hukbalahap or Huks. The organization had engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese occupation of the country during World War II, mobilizing peasants and others in Central Luzon. The Huks were politically-dominated and controlled by the Stalinist Communist Party of the Philippines.

During the war the Huks had an uneasy relationship with the American military, with whom they allied against the Japanese. After the war, the US immediately moved to disarm the Huks, as it sought to secure its renewed dominance over the archipelago. After May 1946 national elections, six Huk and Communist Party leaders who stood on the Democratic Alliance platform were blocked from assuming their seats in the House of Representatives, on the basis of trumped-up allegations of voter intimidation and fraud.

Roxas, who won the presidency, presided over a sham handover of power from the US authorities to the local Filipino elite. The American government retained de facto control over the country’s foreign policy and was granted far-reaching military basing rights. Roxas was closely identified with the landowners, and had pledged to crush ongoing unrest among the peasants and the Huks.

Feleo and other Huk leaders, in line with their Stalinist program of orienting to the Filipino capitalist class, agreed to support government “pacification” negotiations aimed at stemming ongoing peasant unrest. Feleo was on his way to Manila from one of these efforts when he and his security detail were accosted and killed by the unidentified armed men. The attack prompted a number of Huk leaders to return to their base of operations in Central Luzon and to prepare a rebellion that would continue, with brief interruptions, until 1954.

100 years ago: British install king in Iraq

On August 23, 1921, Faisal I was installed as the king of the newly created state of Iraq, which was under mandate from the League of Nations to the British Empire.

The British authorities had decided in March that Faisal would be a better choice than ruling the territory directly because he was both conciliatory to imperialism but had a reputation as a nationalist leader. The former Ottoman territories which comprised the modern states of Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which the French and British had divided among themselves in the aftermath of World War I, were seething with anti-imperialist nationalist sentiment.

Faisal had been the titular head of the government in the short-lived, nationalist-inspired Arab Kingdom of Syria in March, 1920, which had been suppressed by French and British forces.

Faisal was encouraged to campaign among Iraqis, to whom he was virtually unknown, by imperialist figures such as T.E. Lawrence and the archaeologist Gertrude Bell, who, some have argued, was the real power behind Faisal’s throne. (Bell was partly responsible for leaving the Kurdish population of Iraq, Syria and Turkey stateless.) Faisal became king after a plebiscite voted in his favor by 93 percent.

Iraq was an artificially created entity that was founded for the convenience of the British rulers. The nationalist intelligentsia among the Arab population was for the most part Pan-Arabist, a sentiment that Faisal was to play to over the next 12 years of his rule. Faisal gave advice to the French during the Great Druze Revolt in Lebanon and Syria in 1925. He supported Jewish immigration to Palestine but opposed, at least publicly, the formation of a Jewish state. During his coronation the official band played the British anthem, “God save the King.”