Photo credit: Fundación Santa Teresa, Proyecto Alcatraz
Manuel León is a Venezuelan Economist and an MA candidate in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute, specializing in Power, Conflict and Development. His research interests are violent non-state actors, violence, peace and economic development. In the last four years, he has been an Assistant Professor at Universidad Central de Venezuela’s School of Economics, a Research Analyst in the private sector, and a consultant to the Venezuelan National Assembly’s Permanent Committee for Finance and Economic Development and now to the Observatorio Venezolano de Finanzas.
You can engage in conversation with Manuel via email: email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @Leon_Manuel
Proyecto Alcatraz, a case of transforming violence in Venezuela
Imagine you are a young man that spent all his life growing up in a low income area of a little town one hour away from Caracas. You grew up surrounded by gang violence since you were a kid, and with little to no opportunity to get away from it. Maybe you didn’t even grow up with your mom, you were raised by an aunt or your grandma and everywhere you went, you were not recognized as a member of the family, you were always marginalized, and subject to intrafamily violence and even sexually abused by a family member, like some of the young guys that are part of the project I’m writing about.
Now that you know the context, imagine you commit a crime with some members of your gang and you are presented, for the first time in your life, with two options: to go to jail, or to redeem yourself and pay the damage done with work… which one would you choose?
The ‘Proyecto Alcatraz’ was created in 2003 precisely as an opportunity like the one mentioned above. It was a response to the action of three young men that robbed the ‘Hacienda Santa Teresa’, where the company Santa Teresa produces one of the most famous Venezuelan rums. When they were captured, they were presented with the opportunity to choose between work to pay for the things they stole or be presented to the police and go to jail.
‘Proyecto Alcatraz’ is a social reintegration program for young people and adults with problems of behavior, through training in values, education for work, restorative justice and in which rugby is the vehicle of transformation necessary to move from a world of darkness to one with freedom and light. Throughout, young beneficiaries receive psychological accompaniment, another important factor for their transformation process.
The three young men that were apprehended were part of a gang called ‘La Placita’ that operated in the historical district of El Consejo, in the State of Aragua, Venezuela. When apprehended, the leader of the gang was about 20 years old, and the average age for kids to join was around 15.
Something interesting I found out during the interview I had with Gabriel, the General Manager of the project, is that the only supervision that these now ex-gang members had during their work in the Hacienda was another member of their gang and that, twice a day, they would talk with a supervisor from the company. They were never supervised by security force officers. This was done in order to build trust.
According to Gabriel, the environment where the kids grew up was so violent, that when given this opportunity to live in peace and in a calm manner, without the fear of being killed by other gangs, the probability of these members to invite more friends that are also in gangs was really high.
In this project, youth gang members participate voluntarily, they are the ones deciding to take the opportunity to change their lives and transform their violent leadership into virtuous leadership. The program achieves this through three routes:
- Reinsertion and Restorative Justice: First, the Foundation Santa Teresa directly contacts and recruits gang members and invites them to go through four work phases in which, assisted by a multidisciplinary group of professionals, the participants develop new social and work skills to face a new life. (approx 200 young recruits).
The latter seeks to recover the affected relationships between victims and perpetrators, through a process of reconciliation and reparation of the damage, with the participation of a mediator and the community. Thus far, they have reached 1,449 people who have been made aware of options that exist in forgiveness, which they had not previously considered as an alternative.
- Penitentiary Rugby: This part of the program uses training in values, through the constant and disciplined practice of rugby and psychoeducational support, as a tool for the reintegration into society of those deprived of liberty. (over 800 direct beneficiaries).
Again, rugby here is the vehicle for transforming violence, because for you to enjoy the game and, in order for your team to win, you must follow the rules and respect what the referee (the authority) states if you do wrong and a fault in favor of the other team is given. Both things that are usually not seen by gang members.
- Prevention: Alcatraz Rugby Club, a rugby club composed of 5 categories: Infants, Under 14, Under 18, Female and Free Adults. By training kids and young adults on how to play rugby they are learning great ways to channel ‘violence’ in a good way, since the sport has rules and by following them, fair play allows for everyone to enjoy the game.
When I learnt about Proyecto Alcatraz, back in 2016 I felt contempt, but by looking at it in a deeper way I was able to grasp how great it is that, through sports, the lives of a community can improve. In this sense, Proyecto Alcatraz made me realise how important it is to be given a chance for redemption, a chance to change the life you knew.
Being given hope sometimes could save the lives of many by changing the life of just a few individuals, like that one given to the kids that robbed the Hacienda Santa Teresa.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: an experiment in literary investigation
Annecy, France, 20 June 2021
This isn’t my story, I tried to console myself as I passed the (sparsely-attended) voting stations this Sunday morning, where (some) French people were exercising their right to vote in regional elections. But it is also my story, and so I felt a tugging sense of desolation: Why are so few people voting?
Over the years, the bureaucracy of immigration has dulled my own suffragist will. Far from home, I’ve submitted to simply paying the taxes that support the system that keeps us living in our haven of privilege and calm. I am fortunate enough to be able to choose this exclusion; if one day overpowered by a desire to fulfil my political franchise, I’d just go back to where I’ve come from.
Yet once we’ve crossed certain frontiers, going back is no longer an option. As Alice experiences in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 Through the Looking-Glass, some crossings are so transformative that old logics become too peculiar to sustain.
Having made it through the uncertainty, heartache and loss of this pandemic season, we must not now squander the perspective we were given on the strangeness of all that we had come to accept. Rather, for those of us fortunate enough to have made it this far, we have the duty to reflect on who we are, and to envision who we could collectively become.
What do we see in this mirror?
These days I see fear, masked in political vitriol around ‘protection’ and ‘security’. Such words promise to soothe visceral distress resulting from rising precarity and economic insecurity. These raw, searing concerns are painfully real for growing numbers of people falling off the receding edges of prosperity and plenty.
Breath-choking, heart-gripping, stomach-churning, fist-clenching… Fear needs a place to go and searches for courage to help it find its way. But courage can be hard to find sometimes, and easier alternatives often emerge, like blame. Blame offers an apparent bulwark to protect us from that which we do not wish to see in ourselves.
These days the blame falls on the migrant (in search of dignity), but in the not-so-long-ago past it fell on someone else, and in the not-too-distant future, it will fall on yet another category of faceless unknown.
We have been here before. We will keep coming back to this place (mise en abyme) until we are willing to show up on behalf of our shared humanity.
Image credit: Rachel Berman
Eric G. Berman has worked for the United Nations and the Small Arms Survey on arms control as well as peace and security issues, with a focus on Africa. He is currently working on a study on Boko Haram and peacekeeping efforts in the Lake Chad Basin region.
My move from Switzerland to the United States to support Democratic candidates and progressive causes did not go as planned: most of ‘my’ candidates lost … and baseball was played without fans in the stands. Yet I gained a new appreciation for both the challenges to American democracy and the prospects for a brighter future.
I chose North Carolina as the state, the tenth most populous, was considered ‘purple’—i.e. in ‘play’ on the Electoral College map. This was so even though the Republican Party (frequently depicted in ‘red’) had won the presidential contest all but twice over the past 50 years against the (‘blue’) Democratic Party. The state’s junior senator, a Republican, was also up for re-election and seen as vulnerable.
My five-month sojourn consisted of three distinct activities. First, I engaged infrequent Democratic and unaffiliated voters in an effort to encourage them to vote. Second, I registered new voters without regard to any party affiliation (but focused on neighbourhoods that leaned to the left on the US political spectrum). And third, I worked for a Democratic candidate running for the General Assembly in Raleigh, the state capital. I knocked on some 7,500 doors, spoke with perhaps 1,000 voters, and registered about 200 people.
I experienced greater voter antipathy toward Trump than enthusiasm for Biden. The electorate in North Carolina certainly includes white nationalists (many households in the state proudly and prominently display the Confederate flag), Q-Anon adherents, anti-abortion proponents, and Second Amendment enthusiasts who won’t be voting for a Democratic presidential candidate anytime soon. But I met a considerable number of people who voted for Trump in 2016 who expressed buyer’s remorse.
That said, many voters, while unhappy with Trump’s tweets, rhetoric, and character told me that they would still vote for him. They felt their financial and economic prospects had improved during the first three years of his tenure and were hoping for a return to good times after a vaccine for the coronavirus was available.
Trump still carried the state, but by fewer than 75,000 votes, down from almost 175,000 in 2016. George W. Bush won North Carolina by an average of more than 400,000 votes in 2000 and 2004. Reagan won by more than 500,000, and Nixon by more than 600,000, in 1984 and 1972, respectively. Whereas Nixon captured nearly 70 per cent of the vote, and Reagan topped 60 in those two campaigns, in 2020 Trump fell short of 50 per cent in both of his runs.
Democratic candidates in North Carolina should do better in 2022 and beyond. In 2020, many college campuses were closed with students studying remotely—many from outside the state who did not have a chance to register in North Carolina. This group tends to support Democratic candidates. The Democratic Party authorized its candidates to knock on doors less than two weeks before election day. The Republican Party, I was informed, imposed no such restrictions. Post-pandemic, the Democrats will not be hobbled in this way. Canvassing, as this activity is called, is considerably more effective in turning out the vote than is phone-banking or letter-writing. Moreover, I met lots of voters who had recently moved to North Carolina from deeply blue states (e.g. California, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Washington). This migration, which likely will result in North Carolina gaining an Electoral College vote in the wake of this year’s census, shows no signs of slowing.
Republicans still control both houses of the state legislature and will draw districts in a manner that is advantageous to their cause (as Democrats are wont do in states they control). This practice, known as gerrymandering, is arguably a greater threat to the health of U.S. democracy than is the role of money in campaigns.
On a happier note, the state’s judiciary and the governor (a Democrat—who, incidentally, received some 50,000 more votes in 2020 than Trump did) will serve as an effective deterrent to the legislature’s worst instincts. And another city in North Carolina will field a professional baseball team in 2021—the state’s eleventh!
More importantly, I now better understand the complexities of the U.S. electorate. Trump’s supporters are far from a monolithic bloc. To demonize them and label them all as ‘racist’ or ‘misogynistic’ is both wrong and unhelpful. A way must be found to lower the rhetoric and work to bridge the divide. While I personally believe that the blame is not shared equally between opposing sides, I do think everyone must strive to walk back from the abyss and not stoke tensions.
I also found the chance to work alongside people who shared my values and aspirations to be restorative and inspiring. It’s easy (and understandable in light of the past four years) to become jaded and discouraged. Volunteering and working on partisan as well as non-partisan issues to promote civic duties and participation in democratic processes was worthwhile and rewarding. If anyone reading this is motivated to act similarly, there’s no time like the present as there are two critically important Senate runoff elections in Georgia on 5 January (especially if you’re supporting the Democratic candidates).
Photo Credit: Jakob Rubner
Michèle Ndedi Batchandji is a 2019 graduate from IHEID in Geneva with a Master in Development Studies; her thesis was on ‘Access to Education for orphans in Yemen’. Michèle has worked at NORRAG in the SDC backstopping Team and is now a consultant in project implementation in the Office for Africa at the International Trade Center (ITC). You can continue the converSation with Michèle via firstname.lastname@example.org and via LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/michelendedi/
Today, in all the major armed conflicts, civilians represent the highest number of casualties. According to Action on Armed Violence, the countries with the highest death toll of civilians are Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq. These wars have all intermittently received high media coverage in the United States and in Europe, with the exception of Yemen. The Yemeni conflict only had its moment in the spotlight for a couple of months when images of starving children were widely circulated. Now with the Covid-19 pandemic—and despite the UN Security Council Resolution 2532 calling for cessation of hostilities in all conflict zones—even less attention is being paid to the situation of Yemen, while attacks and retaliations continue and the story goes on…
OK, but what is actually going on in that country? The war in Yemen is considered one of the deadliest wars of the past year, so let’s just look at some facts quickly: In Yemen, out of 30.5 million inhabitants, 24.1 million (80%) are said to be in need of humanitarian assistance, of which 12 million are children. Nearly every child in Yemen needs assistance. Schools and hospitals are often under attack. In 2018, some international organizations were calling it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis; now, with the compound effects of Covid-19, the situation can only deteriorate
So it seems tragic but what can we do, right? I cannot pretend to have an answer, but I think we can start by caring. OK, and how? The first step might be to start by being aware of what is happening there. At the basis, Yemen is a country like any other, whose citizens have rights to food, water, shelter, sleep as well as to health, employment and social stability. Thus, our immediate role can be to research, read, write, and to not remain indifferent.
One thing is certain though, that it will remain difficult to talk about actions with long-term impacts until a ceasefire is reached between the parties. Democratic institutions across the world have tried to end military support to belligerents with no real success for now. That means that citizens have to redouble its efforts and pressure on their governments. WE can help. We can all contribute by signing petitions, which will help in keeping the plight of Yemini people on government priority lists. Multilateral organizations have a major role to play by upholding the pressure on both parties to stop the fighting, and to establish more inclusive peace processes with advisory groups which will include more youth and women, who do not only represent the vast majority of the population but also are the first victims of this conflict.
So, let’s try to act, each at our level. The only fact that almost all children in Yemen need assistance can be a good motivation, don’t you think?
Sonali Wanigabaduge is a lawyer and media professional from Sri Lanka. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Transitional Justice, Human Rights and the Rule of Law, at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, and writes in her spare time. She can be reached at email@example.com
Back when I was 10 years old, vegetarianism wasn’t a widely practised concept in Sri Lanka, at least not to the knowledge of my 10 year old self. Lavanya, my intelligent friend from school had never eaten meat in her life! She said she wasn’t supposed to, because she was born a Tamil Hindu Brahmin.
It puzzled me constantly, how she’d steadfastly refuse a piece of chocolate cake because it was ‘contaminated’ with egg, and so mechanically look away while all of us lesser mortals would fight for a second and third piece whenever it was someone’s birthday at school.
I used to love my tuck-shop lunches. The hot dogs, the mini chicken rolls, and the cakes, everything was heavenly. But Lavanya would obediently sit by her desk during the interval and eat her home-made idly – tender rice cakes, with a spicy green sambol made of ground coriander leaves and spices. I would be mind-boggled, and I’d constantly tell my mother about Lavanya’s food.
But Ammi, even Lavanya’s dog is vegetarian!
I’d exclaim in disbelief, whilst munching loudly on spicy mutton curry, fried fish, dhal and fried rice made with a lavish mix of diced sausages and egg.
Ammi was born to a Sinhalese Buddhist family in the deep South of Sri Lanka, and had come to Colombo only after she turned 18. Hers had been a traditional education – simple, linear, and oblivious to the ethnically diverse tapestry of the country, its nuances and its socio-political ebb and flow.
As I was getting ready for my class party that day, Ammi stood by the kitchen, preparing fish cutlets for 25 people – a mix of flavoured, cooked fish, mixed with potato, onions and carrot, battered and deep fried into little balls. I noticed she had set aside some potato dough which she started frying first.
I made some vegetarian cutlets for Lavanya. I fried them first so there’s no contact with the fish paste.
Those five cutlets were the only thing that Lavanya had to eat that day.
I was 26 years old. Life was a blur. We hadn’t breathed easy in eight months. That’s how long it had been since the cancer diagnosis. Logic defied us, yet we traversed on, fumbling to find the best doctors, the best ayurvedic practitioners, and the best priests.
That night, we had driven back home to frantically pack some of Ammi’s medical records and clothes for us to live in for the next few days. The only Intensive Care Unit we had managed to find at such short notice, was a four-hour drive from home. This was where Ammi was being monitored, with the beeping machines, and the haunting silence.
As we started the car to drive back to the hospital, the doctor called, saying Ammi had opened her eyes.
Don’t worry, we gave your mother liquids, he said.
Dr. Lavanya just visited with some Sustagen* milk.
*Sustagen – a brand of nutritional milk often given as an energy booster.
Photo credit: @mana5280
Anna Blanck is a young professional with an MSc in Development from SOAS, and a BFA in Painting from KCAI. She is interested in exploring the relationship of art and development.
Throughout human history, and even before we began to record our endeavors through writing, art has been an expression of the collective condition. The magnitude of power embodied in the artistic voice has given rise to many attempts to wrest control of creative endeavors away from the people. This takes two notorious forms: censorship and propaganda.
We no longer hear very much about these two phenomena, as both have taken a more a subtle shape. Yet the dominant narrative is still embodied through mainstream forms of art, while institutions oppress alternative voices. Hollywood reinforces ideology through plots, protagonists, and antagonists; it also presents an unquestioned dichotomy between the elite participants who may shape the conversation, and the rest who simply receive it. This binary is also present in the world of canonized painters, sculptors, authors, and performers; a monopoly on the legitimate use of creativity.
There is a reason that these suppressive tactics ultimately fail. Artistic expression has the means to immediately re-frame the conversation, and it arises as a natural response to human dilemmas. Time and again, creative people surface to express the turmoil and conflict within society even (or perhaps even more) in the most difficult of situations.
In recent weeks, the world has been crying out that it is finally time to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter. Artists have played an essential role in shaping this demand. Beautiful graphics circulating on Instagram have been raising awareness, spreading information, and maintaining the momentum of the movement. Photographers have been documenting haunting, heartbreaking, important moments at the protests.
Still more important work is being done by the protesters themselves, who have been challenging the dominant imagery, and creating their own. The protesters signs are not only fighting systemic racism but also upending existing limits on the legitimate use of creative expression.
#BlackLivesMatter is only the most recent in a wave of protests that have been steadily increasing in frequency and intensity. With each of these comes a democratization of artistic media as protesters find creative means to communicate their aims and challenge the dominant narrative. Slowly, we are learning en masse that anyone can use art, not just those who are “good” at it. As we learn to reclaim our individual voices, we will become a more powerful force for lasting social change.