This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on February 17, 2014. Ms. Benjamin tells Paul Jay about her love/hate relationship with Cuba.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to Reality Asserts Itself.
JOHN BRENNAN, CHIEF COUNTERTERRORISM ADVISOR TO PRES. BARACK OBAMA: More broadly, al-Qaeda’s killing of innocents, mostly Muslim men, women, and children, has badly tarnished its image and appeal in the eyes of Muslims around the world.
MEDEA BENJAMIN, COFOUNDER, CODE PINK AND GLOBAL EXCHANGE: Excuse me. Will you speak out about [crosstalk] innocents by the United States? What about the hundreds of innocent people we are killing with our drone strikes in Pakistan and in Yemen and Somalia? I speak out on behalf of those innocent victims. They deserve an apology from you, Mr. Brennan. How many people are you willing to sacrifice? Why are you lying to the American people and not saying how many innocents have been killed? I speak out–
UNIDENTIFIED: Thank you, ma’am, for expressing your views. There will be time for questions and answers after the presentation.
BENJAMIN: –on behalf of Tariq Aziz, a 15-year-old in Pakistan, who was killed because he wanted to document the drone strikes. I speak out on behalf of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, 16-year-old born in Denver, killed in Yemen just because his father was someone we don’t like. I speak out on behalf of the Constitution, on behalf of the rule of law. I love the rule of law. I love my country. You are making us less safe by killing so many innocent people around the world. Shame on you!
So that, once again, was Medea Benjamin, one of the better-known antiwar activists in the country, who joins us again now in the studio.
Thanks for joining us again.
MEDEA BENJAMIN, COFOUNDER, CODE PINK AND GLOBAL EXCHANGE: Good to be here.
JAY: One more time, Medea was cofounder of the women’s-led grassroots activist group Code Pink, which was founded in 2002. And she’s the author of many books. Her most recent is Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. And if you want to know more about Medea, watch part one, which you really should watch anyway, and/or look down below the video player, because the whole biography’s there.
So we’re going to pick up where we were, ’cause we’re kind of working our way through your story. And as we do, we’ll pick up kind of political issues along the way to talk about.
You went back to school. You get your undergraduate degree in public health. You do a master’s in public health. You go to Africa for a little bit. You come back, and in another year get a master’s in economics. So over the course of three years, you do an undergraduate and two master’s, and then you head back to Africa.
BENJAMIN: Yes. And one of my first jobs was working in poor, very poor areas in Mozambique. And at that time, you might recall, ’cause you’re about the same age as me,–
JAY: I’m a little older than you.
BENJAMIN: –was when the milk companies, the milk formula companies, like Nestlé, would go into these little villages.
Well, I was working in one of these little villages, and I saw–I didn’t know this was happening all over the country and the world–people who come in dressed in white coats like they were doctors and nurses and say to these poor women, stop breastfeeding your babies and give them this formula. And, of course, the women then would run out of money to buy more formula and they would have no more breast milk. They would mix the powdered milk with dirty water. Their kids would get sick. And I would literally have the kids dying in my arms. And I just couldn’t believe that this was happening and started to go to the stores where they were selling the milk and telling the women not to buy it, trying to convince the store owners not to carry it.
And the more I got involved, the more I realized how tangled and complicated this was, and that this was a corporate strategy of big multinationals. And I ended up going to an international conference on nutrition that was sponsored by Nestlé and doing my first international solo protest to get up there and say, Nestlé kills babies. I didn’t realize, though, it was in Brazil under a dictatorship and that I would be whisked away into a secret prison. So that was my first experience at this level.
JAY: For how long were you in prison?
BENJAMIN: Well, I wasn’t there for long, thank goodness, because I had friends in the U.S. Embassy who saw what happened, saw me being taken away, and found me and had me deported from the country instead.
JAY: So how did–the Nestlé’s boycott, which becomes a big global campaign, are you in on kicking this off?
BENJAMIN: Well, not at all. Little did I realize when I got deported back to the U.S. that there was a campaign in full swing. And I got to meet the people in UNICEF who were part of this campaign. And I look back now and say, if only we had internet, I could have figured it all out from early on that there was a campaign I could have plugged into. Here I was, alone, a person in a small village in Africa, thinking that I had to take on this company.
So I was part of the tail end of the campaign, because the companies had already started to agree to come to the table. But I saw how powerful this type of campaign was, because it was the first time major multinationals were forced to come up with a code of conduct and to allow monitoring in their inner workings of their companies. And that was a very powerful lesson for me.
JAY: I mean, it has a resonance with me, ’cause I grew up in a house where my mother helped organize the Nestlé boycott in Canada. So this was all part of my culture.
So you stuck your neck out, you stood up, and you have your first one-person protest–the beginning of many. Then what?
BENJAMIN: Well, then my next work was in Central America. And I was sent out again to work with poor women in poor villages.
JAY: And you’re working with who?
BENJAMIN: At that point I was working with a international organization. I was working with the Swedish government. And I was sent out to Guatemala. And little did I know, working in Guatemala, that these women who I was supposed to help teach them how to feed their children better were people who had their own lands that had been taken away from them by U.S. companies. And here again I’m faced with multinationals, like United Fruit Company, that had stole the land of indigenous people, that had made them into poor people, and it seemed very odd that I would be teaching them how to feed themselves when the issue is how do they get back the land that had been stolen from them.
JAY: Now, do you get that while you’re there?
BENJAMIN: I get that while I’m there. Yeah.
JAY: ‘Cause a lot of aid workers don’t, or they don’t want to go there, because their job is to stay within very narrow confines and within the limits of the NGO work, ’cause if you start asking that kind of question, you’re asking a systemic question.
BENJAMIN: I asked the systemic question. I started hooking up with people who were trying to form unions in the banana companies, people who were fighting the companies, and I got kicked out of that area. So that was, I guess, number two deportation.
JAY: Not prison this time, though.
BENJAMIN: Not prison that time. And I was actually just sent away from that area.
I got a job, believe it or not, with USAID to do a report on how U.S. food was being used in Guatemala. And as I did the research, I realized it was being used in a U.S. counterinsurgency program and wrote that up, and then was no longer hired by AID.
JAY: What year are we in?
BENJAMIN: So this is now in the early–about 1978.
So I had a hard time keeping a job. Every time I would go in an area that was a very poor area, I would find these systemic problems and want to deal with them.
JAY: Yeah. You spent some time in Cuba. Does that come in around this time? And if so, how do you get there?
BENJAMIN: That came in in 1979. I had gone back to work in Africa. And I was so frustrated by what I was seeing about when people would rise up, like in Mozambique, to get their independence, overthrow colonialism, there would be U.S.-funded groups and South African groups that would come in to try to quash any type of real revolution.
And I met Cubans along the way. And what I really loved about the Cubans is, one, they were great party people, and I do like to party. They were great dancers. They love music. They were fun to be around. But they were also great workers and they had an incredible sense of compassion.
I mean, I wanted to be a Peace Corps person, but I didn’t want to do it for the U.S. government. And there I saw these Cubans as internationalists. They would come in as doctors and nurses, and they would really get to love and be part of the local community. And they would care about the local people, work hard, and party hard. And I thought, wow, what a cool people these are.
And I also, because so much of my work was always with poor kids, I said, there must be someplace that doesn’t have kids who are malnourished. And they said, go to Cuba. And I said, oh, come on, you know, there’s malnourished kids in Cuba. They said, we do not have malnourished kids in Cuba. Go find out for yourself. And I decided to go and find out for myself.
JAY: And what did you find out for yourself?
BENJAMIN: Well, the only malnourished child I found in my entire four years in Cuba was my own child, who was born to myself–quite skinny, and her father is very skinny–and they kept telling me she’s too thin, she’s too thin, and wanted to force-feed her. I said, no, that’s just her constitution.
There were no hungry kids in Cuba, because there was a ration system, and the ration system meant that every person in Cuba had enough to feed themselves. So I saw some really positive things in Cuba, like the ration system, like a health care system that gave health care to everyone. It was during the years when the Soviet Union was economically strong and was giving a lot of money to Cuba, so things were pretty good in Cuba in those days.
But I must say it didn’t last a long time for me to be very content living in Cuba, because I saw the other side as well. I saw the side that you couldn’t form independent organizations, you couldn’t speak out very forcefully. You could speak out–everybody complains in Cuba about everything. But when you start really trying to do something about it, you get in trouble. So I got in trouble in Cuba. And I actually got put in jail and deported from Cuba.
JAY: Everywhere you go.
BENJAMIN: Everywhere. I just don’t know what it is, Paul.
JAY: What did you do in Cuba that got you thrown out?
BENJAMIN: Well, I was working. There weren’t a lot of places for me to work in Cuba. One of the only things I could do is work as a translator. And so I worked at the newspaper. And there was only one newspaper. It was the Communist Party newspaper. And it was a terrible newspaper. It was a rag. I mean, it had no interesting analysis. It was all about what Fidel Castro did every day.
And I was translating Fidel Castro’s speeches. I must say, he’s brilliant. And the fact that anybody could talk for five hours without a note and put facts and figures and all kinds of things, I mean, I was just amazed by this guy’s brain.
But it was very flowery language in Spanish, and when you translate into English, I would tend to cut out the stuff that didn’t make a lot of sense in English. And so they would come to me and say, well, this speech was, you know, five pages in the Spanish version but is only three pages in English. What did you do? And I said, well, I cut out the parts that didn’t really sound very good in English. Well, you know, what are you doing editing Fidel Castro’s speeches? That was the first thing that got me in trouble.
Then it just escalated. You know, I would question things. Why are we doing things this way? Why don’t we have more interesting stories? Why don’t we have other points of views in the newspaper? So I got kicked out of the newspaper. And in Cuba, if you lose your job, you lose your housing.
And then, one thing after another, I just ended up writing freelance. And the Cuban government got a hold of some of the pieces that I wrote and said that I was counterrevolutionary because I wrote that the farmers’ markets that they had created–. They were selling things at very high prices. Fidel Castro didn’t like it, so he closed down all the markets. And I said that that was the wrong way to deal with it. And my critique was considered counterrevolutionary. And in the end I was put on a military escort to a plane and sent out of the country.
JAY: And just it’s not the main thing we’re talking about, so maybe on another occasion we’ll kind of dig more into your Cuban experience, but overall, then, what were you left with as an impression of Cuba?
BENJAMIN: I was left with a very love/hate kind of relationship with Cuba. I love the people, always. I love that the government cared about the people. I mean, I was holding babies in my arms who were dying in places from Latin America to Africa. To be in a relatively poor country like Cuba where every child had enough to eat, where every child had an education and they had health care was extraordinary.
But I felt that even though the blockade was used always as an excuse of why we can’t have more free speech, I felt that there should have been more of an open, democratic society in Cuba, and that while Fidel Castro was an incredible leader of having made the revolution, that I believe in renewal of leadership constantly, and that that wasn’t happening in Cuba.
So I think the–I appreciate the good things, and I feel that people do need the right to free expression. Those are not just sort of extra things that are not important. Those are actually critical, I think, to society’s well-being.
JAY: So now you’ve been turfed out of three places, you’ve been to jail in two of the three, and you’re on the way back, what, to the United States?
BENJAMIN: Yes. I got a job with a place called the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, because I was asked to come and help on a book, writing a book about Cuba, Cuba’s food system. It ended up being a wonderful book. I had never written very much before, and it was a great experience. I wrote it with the cofounder of Food First, called Joe Collins, and we wrote a book called No Free Lunch: Food and Revolution in Cuba Today. And from there I started doing a lot more writing, and worked at Food First for about seven years.
JAY: This is a quick note. Have you ever tried to go back to Cuba?
BENJAMIN: I was not allowed back in Cuba for a long time. And then I was asked to come back in by a publication called NACLA that wanted to do a piece on Cuba. And I said, I can’t go in. And they said, our board member is Cuba’s lawyer in the United States, and he can get you in.
He did get me in. I wrote what I consider a very fair piece on Cuba, the good and the bad. And after that I was allowed to go in. In fact, I started organizing big delegations to go to Cuba, openly defying the embargo, and one time met with Fidel Castro on one of those trips. He would like to meet with those groups. And he took me aside and he said, I know what happened to you, and the Revolution commits many mistakes, and the way you were treated was one of those mistakes. I think I’m one of the few people that ever got an apology from Fidel Castro.
JAY: That’s very good.
So then comes Global Exchange?
BENJAMIN: When I worked at Food First, I really enjoyed the writing, but as I would get into the issues, I’d want to do something, not just say, okay, now let’s write another book. And I wrote a book about Honduras, and I found that the U.S. was getting involved creating death squads in Honduras, and shouldn’t we be doing something about it, and the founders said, no, no, that’s not our job; we’re really an educational organization.
And so I decided I wanted to create an organization that did more activism. And that’s how we created Global Exchange.
JAY: This is in San Francisco.
BENJAMIN: In San Francisco. Yeah.
JAY: And its mission was?
BENJAMIN: It’s mission was to educate people about U.S. policy around the world and what we could do to make that policy more aligned with our values.
JAY: And a lot of that had to do with taking delegations to places.
BENJAMIN: That’s right. We realize that people needed to get out of their U.S.-only perspective and see the rest of the world. So we created what we called “reality tours” and took people to see things from the perspective of peasants and union organizers and go into the coffee plantations and see what conditions were like. Because you drink this coffee every day, you should know who’s growing it and how they’re being paid or not being paid. And we would take people to get other perspectives on U.S. policies. So we started traveling all over the Caribbean, Latin America, started taking groups to Asia, to Africa. And that was a big part of Global Exchange.
The other part of it was that we brought the Fair Trade label that had been developed in Europe, that hadn’t come to the United States, to the U.S. So the labels that you’d see on coffee and tea and chocolate, we helped get that started in the U.S.
JAY: And campaigns about garment workers and shoe manufacturers in different places–which one stands out in your mind?
BENJAMIN: Well, the most fun that we had was the Nike campaign. That was really great, because it was, I think, when Nike had really reached the point where people started paying things like $150 for a pair of shoes because of the brand name. And so I went to Indonesia.
Actually, I went to Indonesia because it was part of our work around U.S. policy, and it was during the days of Suharto, where U.S. was supporting a dictatorship. Learning about Nike was a totally separate thing. It just happened that during that trip the union people said, do you know what your companies are doing, and took us to meet with workers who were making these shoes.
That’s how we came back and said, we’ve got to do something about that.
And we brought workers from Indonesia to the U.S. And it was some of the most spectacular work that we’ve done, because we would take them to Nike headquarters and try to get a meeting with the CEO. And they would treat us like we were a bunch of tourists. Here we were, like, all five-foot-tall women, trying to literally walk up into their campus to get a meeting.
Or we’d take them to the Nike–where they sell the shoes, and try to bring the worker in with press to try on a pair of shoes. And Nike would go crazy. You know, the worker can’t go in and try on shoes! And she would say that it would take her three months to ever be able to afford a pair of sneakers, and in making hundreds of them every day, she’d never had a chance to actually try on a pair. And we got that onto national television, a worker, for the first time in their life, putting on a pair of sneakers. And it really had a huge impact.
JAY: Did it change anything about the way Nike did business?
BENJAMIN: Yes. So we forced Nike to start opening up its factories to outside monitors. We forced them to change the way workers were treated. I would say we got rid of the worst of the abuses. The physical conditions of the workers’ quarters were better. There was now–started to pay them overtime. They started to–we forced them to stop using some of the toxic chemicals, like the glues that were being used. So I think we had a tremendous impact. They still tend to want to use low-paid workers in places that don’t have the right to organize, but at least some of those worst abuses have been made better.
JAY: Okay. So we’re going to continue our series of interviews with Medea Benjamin, and we’ll pick up on the story of the establishment of Code Pink, which is I guess what Medea’s mostly known for these days.
Please join us again on The Real News and Reality Asserts Itself.
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“Medea Benjamin is an American political activist who was the co-founder of Code Pink with Jodie Evans and others. Along with activist and author Kevin Danaher, she created the fair trade advocacy group Global Exchange. Benjamin was the Green Party candidate in California in 2000 for the United States Senate.”