The Indigenous Roots of Nonviolent Struggle: A Reply to Steve Weissman

October 13, 2009

Steve Weissman’s article “How Washington Learned to Love Nonviolence” which recently appeared on this web site [After Downing Street] is filled with misrepresentations, omissions, and just plain falsehoods.

Though Washington’s notorious willingness to intervene in the internal affairs of foreign nations is manifold and transcends the party in power, the examples put forward in this article are misleading and inaccurate.

For example, the student movement Otpor!, which led the popular uprising in Serbia against Milosevic in 2000, did receive some funding from Western sources, but the claim that it was “stage-managed by Washington” is ridiculous. Indeed, this is as simplistic as claiming that the Central American revolutions, because of their limited financial support from the Eastern Bloc, were stage-managed by Moscow. In both cases, these movements developed their strategies and tactics on their own and were motivated by the oppression and injustice within their societies, not because a foreign super-power directed them. The brief meeting Weissman cites between some Otpor activists and a retired U.S. army officer in Hungary took place well after their movement was already engaged in strategic nonviolent against the Milosevic regime and hundreds of their supporters had been jailed. While Western aid was certainly useful in Otpor’s growth and development, it was not critical; it was Otpor’s message – developed by the young student leaders at its helm – not Western assistance, which captured the imagination of the Serbian population angered by years of war, corruption, oppression and international isolation. And there was no outside support or facilitation for the uprising itself, which actually took Western leaders by surprise.

Indeed, Otpor’s leaders tended to be decidedly left-of-center Serbian nationalists who vehemently opposed the 1999 NATO bombing of their country and were and continued to be sharply critical of U.S. policy in the Balkans and beyond. They not only opposed the policies of the Milosevic regime and the U.S. government, but the traditional opposition parties as well. The success of the populist groundswell they generated forced the once-feuding opposition groups to unite behind a single opposition candidate, which made Milosevic’s defeat in the election possible and, when the incumbent tried to steal the election, they were able to organize the successful uprising which forced him to honor the election results. Rather than being American agents, the Otpor leadership had also been in opposition to Milosevic back when the United States was supporting him in the years immediately following the Dayton Accords in 1995.

Interviews with CANVAS leaders reveal their contempt for National Endowment for Democracy and other U.S. –funded entities which they see as undermining pro-democracy struggles around the world due to its “clear political agenda” on behalf of the U.S. government. Indeed, their hostility toward U.S. foreign policy dates back to the counter-productive U.S. policy toward the Balkans in the 1990s. For example, as Srdja Popovich – whose mother, a senior editor for Serbian state television, narrowly escaped death when U.S. forces bombed the building in 1999 – puts it, “Do you think I would ever collaborate with the government that tried to kill my mom?” Popovich has spoken out against the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, against U.S.-led covert action and other forms of U.S. imperialism, and gave an impassioned speech at a recent anti-war rally in Portland denouncing American militarism. Similarly, his colleague Ivan Marovic was recently in Honduras co-leading a workshop for Zelaya supporters to assist the nonviolent resistance struggle against the coup. Yet Weissman tries to portray them as U.S. puppets.

It should also be noted that not all CANVAS trainers are Serbs, but include veterans of other nonviolent struggles, such as former anti-apartheid activists from the UDF and ANC.

Weissman also implies that CANVAS is only involved doing workshops for opposition movements challenging regimes the U.S. opposes. In reality, they have worked with at least as many pro-democracy groups challenging regimes supported by the U.S. government, as demonstrated by their workshops for Palestinians, Egyptians, Western Saharans, West Papuans, Azerbaijanis, and Guineans, among others. Indeed, CANVAS trainers have led workshops in the United States for peace activists, immigrants rights activists, and others. This is all on the public record, but Weissman selectively cites only the workshops done for groups challenging regimes opposed by the United States as part of a disingenuous effort to malign CANVAS and their work.

Though CANVAS has not used sufficient discernment, in my view, of what kind of groups they work with, they have turned down requests for workshops from right-wing Bolivians and others whom they recognize as being undemocratic in nature. And there is no way a “color revolution” could succeed in Bolivia, Ecuador, or Venezuela in any case, since such uprisings have only succeeded in situation where a regime has lost legitimacy with its own people. Weissman should be reminded that – unlike Serbia, Ukraine, Nepal, Maldives, and other recent examples of nonviolent overthrows of governments – these Latin American countries have democratically-elected leaders who still has majority support.

Weissman then goes on to claim that the United States was somehow behind the recent uprising against the right-wing clerical regime in Iran, despite the fact that it was led by the strongly nationalist and anti-American opposition. In reality, uprisings like the one witnessed back in June have occurred with some regularity in Iran since the late 1800s. Indeed, the idea of Americans having to teach Iranians about massive nonviolent resistance is like Americans teaching Iranians to cook fesenjan.

Iranians successfully rose up against economic concessions to the British in 1890. The Constitutional Revolution of 1905 against the corrupt rule of the Shah and regional nobles led to the emergence of an elected parliament and financial reforms. The uprising against the U.S.-backed Shah in the late 1970s brought down that autocratic monarchy. In each of these cases, the tactics were remarkably similar to those used in the weeks following the contested elections: strikes, boycotts, mass protests, and other forms of nonviolent action. The Iranians are learning from their history, not from Americans.

Though the subsequent Islamist regime has proven to be at least as repressive, the legacy of the largely nonviolent overthrow of the Shah remains an inspiration for Iranians still struggling for their freedom. Indeed, the current movement has consciously adopted many of the symbols and tactics of the 1978-79 period. There is the use of green (the color of Islam) as the movement’s identifying color. Demonstrators in Tehran, Tabriz, Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz, and other cities gathered at the same locations of anti-Shah rallies. As in 1978, protesters chanted “Death to the Dictatorship” during demonstrations and shouted “Allah Akbar” (God is Great!) from the rooftops and demonstrators placed their palms in the blood spilled by a killed or injured comrade and pressed the red palm print on a nearby wall as a sign of martyrdom.

Weissman even claims that the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict — for which I and a number of other prominent anti-imperialist scholars serve as academic advisors — has funded the Iranian opposition. This is a total lie. Such funding is against the charter of the organization and no such financial support for the Iranian opposition or any other group has ever taken place.

There are many manifestations of U.S. imperialism and intervention that need to be exposed and challenged. It is a distraction and disservice to the struggle to engage in sectarian attacks against progressive NGOs and to falsely accuse genuine pro-democracy movements as lackeys of Washington.

For more information on strategic nonviolent struggles, check out the section of my web site addressing this phenomenon here.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus.


Nonviolent Action