Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Ignored Politics of the Immigration Debate

It is evident from the mobs of protestors assembled at the border between the United States and Mexico that many U.S. citizens blame people who are migrating to the United States for their own plight, and show little pity for the disruption to their lives and disconnection from their families. Their solution is to close the borders and kick out the "illegals". But any fair U.S. government policy requires a recognition of the U.S. government's role in decades of oppression that is directly responsible for creating the conditions that lead to people fleeing their home countries for the United States today.

Economic policies such as NAFTA favor large agribusiness corporations, who receive millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies from the US government, over Mexican peasants who have been farming their land and selling corn in local markets for centuries. With the influx of corn from US multinationals undercutting the price of local corn, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have found it impossible to earn a living the way the always had, and their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents before them had as well.

In his book Fresh Fruit Broken Bodies, medical anthropologist Seth Holmes recounts the experiences of indigenous Mexicans from farming communities in Oaxaca as they make the seasonal migration to strawberry farms in Washington state, and then California to pick fruit that helps keep American consumers healthy, while physically demanding labor and unsafe working conditions cause harm to their own health and well being in the process.

Holmes describes the structural neoliberal socioeconomic system that allows corporations to reap profits at the expense of local workers as a form of structural violence. That is to say, creating and maintaining poverty in certain class and ethnic groups through unjust economic structures is a form of actual violence equivalent to an act such as a stab wound.

The same concept of structural violence can be applied to the political repression long suffered by natives of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other Central American countries. The U.S. and CIA backed overthrow of the popularly elected, democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 at the bequest of the United Fruit Company, who could not accept Arbenz's democratic reforms that would address United Fruit and other companies' exploitation of Guatemalan resources and labor, is one example.

Decades of direct, financial sponsorship for terrorist military dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador, where peasants, priests, labor leaders, academics and human rights activists were systematically murdered by death squads in what constituted terrorism and genocide, are an example of sowing the seeds of violence that today have resulted in some of the highest rates of violence in the world.

In countries like Nicaragua, popular resistance in the form of a revolutionary movement against the Somoza dictatorship were met with terrorism by the United States. Under Reagan, the U.S. recruited, financed and trained a terrorist paramilitary group (The Contras) while mining the country's harbors to prevent the popularly elected government from delivering land reforms and health care, and helping the population achieve economic justice. When the World Court found the United States government guilty of violating Nicaragua's sovereignty, mining its harbors and encouraging human rights violations and demanded restitution, the U.S. government ignored the verdict. To this day, they have not paid a penny.

This is a history that protestors in Murrieta ignore when they call for borders to be closed and people - not "border jumpers", " illegal immigrants ", or " illegals " - to be turned away and sent back where they came from, with the United States washing its hands as if it was in no way involved and bears no responsibility.

The U.S. government has spent its entire existence carrying out atrocities against natives, neighbors, and far away villagers tens of thousands of miles away, while silencing the truth about its violence it and painting itself as a victim. It is not surprising that when the fruits of its violent economic and political interventions reach U.S. doors, a population who has long been sold a false narrative - where violent repression is upholding democracy and human rights, and violation of economic sovereignty is the gift of free markets - would misplace its anger about who is to blame.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Long Arm of U.S. Law Undermines Sovereignty and Democracy Around the Globe

Six years after the financial crisis that devastated the housing market, leaving millions of American homeowners facing foreclosure or with little or negative equity in their largest investment, not a single American bank has been charged with a crime. Citigroup this week agreed to a $7 billion settlement related to mortgage securities, but they are only paying civil penalties. While the settlement doesn't preclude future criminal charges, none have been announced. But the federal government is finally bringing down the hammer – not on any bank that caused or was complicit in the crisis, but on foreign banks that do business with Cuba and other countries like Sudan and Iran that the U.S. unilaterally declare are off limits.

French bank BNP Paribas is expected to settle a criminal case with the U.S. government for up to $9 billion. Their crime is violating American laws that representatives of the French people never agreed should be imposed on companies operating on French soil.

The U.S. is punishing foreign companies because they have failed to go along with the U.S.'s economic war that has lasted more than half a century. This war was conceived of and carried out because the Cuban people had exercised their self-determination to form a political arrangement that U.S. Cold Warriors would not allow them to choose. The Cold Warriors decided to use coercion through their dominance of the global economic system to make the Cuban people suffer until they regretted and ultimately abandoned their chosen socioeconomic system.

“The majority of the Cuban people support Castro. There is no effective political opposition,” wrote Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Lester D. Mallory in 1960. “The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection and hardship… every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba… a line of action which… makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”

Since the blockade is based on the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the U.S. is at war with Cuba. The Act, which gives the President power to restrict trade between the U.S. and its enemies, can only be used during times of war.

The U.N. General Assembly would clarify beyond a shadow of a doubt that such action was in blatant violation of international law with Resolution 2625 of 1970: “No state may use or encourage the use of economic, political or any other type of measure to coerce another State in order to obtain the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights and to secure advantages of any kind… Every state has an inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural systems, without interference in any form by another State."

Fifty three years later the blockade has served its violent purpose by causing economic damage the Cuban government estimates at more than $1.1 trillion as of April 2013. They argue that based on the Geneva Conventions and Declaration Concerning the Laws of Naval War, the blockade constitutes an act of genocide.

The effects on the Cuban people have been catastrophic, but this has never appeared to bother the U.S. government. Nor has the fact that 99% of the world’s nations voted in the General Assembly (188-2) in October 2013 that the blockade is illegal and must end - the same way they have voted each and every year for the past 22 years. The closest margin was in 1993, when the U.S. garnered the broad support of Israel, Albania and Paraguay against a measly 88 nations in opposition.

Other governments do not appreciate the subversion of their democracy and their sovereign rights. The French Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg said last month “the U.S. has an unfair advantage in the global ‘economic war’ because of a law that authorizes prosecution of foreign companies for activities outside American soil. He called for fair and equitable treatment of the bank,” according to USA Today.

Many smaller foreign companies have also been caught in the U.S.’s illegal, extraterritorial web of laws in the past few months. An Argentina-based travel agency settled for $2.8 million fine for offering services to people who traveled to Cuba. A large Netherlands travel company settled for $5.9 million for similar charges. A Canadian subsidiary of AIG, who sold policies to people traveling to Cuba, cost the insurance giant $279,038 in fines to Uncle Sam.

The French complaint may rekindle previous European challenges to the blockade that have never been settled. In May 1996, the European Communities took the case to the WTO for what they argued were violations of that organizations rules in the Helms Burton Act, which had been signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. Despite the laws extraterritorial provisions that prevented international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank from granting credit to Cuba, Clinton signed the bill into law, eager to pander to reactionary Anti-Castro voters in Florida and New Jersey, a strategic group important for his re-election.

The European Committee “claim(ed) that US trade restrictions on goods of Cuban origin, as well as the possible refusal of visas and the exclusion of non-US nationals from US territory, are inconsistent with the US obligations under the WTO Agreement.”

The U.S. government took the bizarre position that it would refuse to take part in the proceedings. The incoherent logic to this threat was that the Act was a matter of “American national security,” of which the WTO “has no competence to proceed.”

The U.S. didn’t end up invoking its national security exemption, which the European countries feared would wreak havoc on the whole international trade system, as negotiations continued.

“Most scholars worried that, if this assertion of the national security defense succeeded, that defense would have no limits on it, and it could be used by any nation at any time to defend any trade barrier,” writes John A. Spanogle, Jr., Professor of Law at George Washington University.

In the end, the European countries backed down and the WTO panel convened on the matter was suspended with the issue unresolved.

Nearly 20 years later, it seems the political tides may have turned. With a huge French financial giant threatened with serious fines, not just chump change, it’s possible that the American charade that is the blockade may have encountered serious, sustained opposition. With the BNP case setting a precedent, the door is open to fines possibly even greater in the future for "crimes" people in the countries where such companies are based do not consider illegal.

Since the U.S. dollar is the world's reserve currency, most international transactions pass through New York. The U.S. uses this monopoly on the world's financial system to step in between the two parties and impose its own orders - sovereignty be damned.

Argentina has found itself in the cross hairs of the extraterritorial application of U.S. laws in its ongoing dispute with "vulture funds" who purchased that nation's debt. In 2002, Argentina exercised its sovereign right to default on its debt and rebuilt its economy in record time, pulling residents out of the mire of inflation and insecurity back to reasonably comfortable standards of living, only to now see it all potentially come unraveling before their eyes.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Argentina's appeal of a lower court ruling that the debt must be paid back. The "vulture funds" - who swept in to buy bonds for pennies on the dollar in the hope of letting Uncle Sam use his muscle to push around pesky little countries like Argentina - show no sign of backing down. A capitulation by Argentina would set a disastrous precedent for poor countries who use default as an alternative to the misery of austerity.

"Sovereigns have to be able to default," Karen Hooper told Bloomberg Business Week. "They have defaulted continuously since money was invented."

Other countries are starting to catch on that the convenience of the status quo is not worth risk the price of the U.S.'s arbitrary and unilateral wrath. Especially after the government shutdown last fall, international governments and investors are starting to realize that the United States is not even stable itself - which was the rationale for using the dollar in the first place.

A world where the U.S. can no longer inflict tremendous financial damage on other countries simply because it doesn't believe in the principles of sovereignty and democracy would be a welcome relief for the billions of people outside of U.S. borders.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Letter to the Editor re: Daily News Op-Ed "Does NYU have a Jewish problem"

To the Editor:

I'm writing in response to your article "Does NYU have a Jewish problem" published on June 1, 2014. The article tries to equate any criticism of Israeli state policy with anti-Semitism and terrorism. The article uses the words anti-Semitic five times, terror two times and genocide once. Yet what is described is nothing other than free political speech by a student group, no different than other student groups organized for political causes. The authors claim that NYU-SJP "targets" and "threatens" Jewish students. There is no evidence of this in the article or elsewhere. The only thing they use to substantiate their claim are reports of students feelings after reading pamphlets or listening to a writer's presentation. If this type of free speech were not allowed, injustices throughout history like slavery, denial of civil rights and apartheid would have been off limits as long as someone claimed that their discussion made them feel uncomfortable. A newspaper should know the value of free speech. The authors have a right to their opinion, but the Daily News showed poor editorial judgement by granting them a platform to try to suppress and criminalize political action that they disagree with. 

Matthew Peppe
NYU Alumnus, Class of 2003

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Civil rights in the age of Obama

The Obama administration's foreign policy has become increasingly dependent on lies and distortions. Officials lambaste other states who refuse to accept the neoliberal order dictated by multinational corporations without any evidence or consistency. Their word is supposed to be taken at face value without any debate, as if they deserve the benefit of the doubt. After  the State Department recently warned the Venezuelan government to respect the rights of protesters and ensure due process of the law, a bill passed the Senate to impose sanctions on the oil-rich nation. We are supposed to believe that Venezuelans are lucky their protectors in the North care enough about them to save them from the government they freely elected. The U.S. government protects its own residents at home, and will do the same for those living under less fortunate regimes.

This imperialist worldview peddled since the Monroe Doctrine to justify the brutality and viciousness of colonialism has survived despite any evidence the people either overseas or at home benefit from the coercion and military force used to ensure the free flow of capital and open markets.

We are told over and over about "American exceptionalism", as Obama likes to say. It is taken for granted that "we" are good and "they" are bad. We are constantly reminded that we are free, democratic, and so selfless that we will stop at nothing to ensure our values are extended to people in every corner of the globe.

It is pure coincidence that those governments who don't share our values and respect for rights have chosen other socioeconomic systems. It has nothing to do with the fact they have decided the resources like oil reserves in Venezuela belong to the citizens of that nation, not corporations who can exploit those resources for a profit.

No, it is because of lack of respect for democracy and freedom that the U.S. government and the multinational corporations who provide the funds that enable its politicians to win election to their office are so insistent on being the ultimate arbiter of what is best for the population of Venezuela.

"The government’s arbitrary detention and excessive use of force against protesters and journalists, lack of due process, and the shutdown of foreign media and Internet, endanger human rights," said State Department official Scott Busby in a statement. This comes several months after John Kerry accused the Venezuelan government of carrying out a "terror campaign" against its own citizens. 

The U.S. government doesn't mention that the violent protesters have been responsible for at least 20 deaths, including motorcyclists who have been decapitated by barbed wire strung in the streets. Protesters are now several months into their campaign to overthrow the legitimately elected President of the country, who belongs to the party who has won 17 out of the last 18 elections. They have caused millions of dollars in damage to city buses, universities and administrative buildings with Molotov cocktails and deliberate fires. 

You have to ask yourself: Would the U.S. government sit back and allow that to happen? If Washington was under siege, would U.S.  officials calmly declare their respect for "free speech" and "freedom of assembly" while people died and the city burned? 

We don't have to look very far back in time for the answer. Police brutality and violent law enforcement crack downs on peaceful protesters were hallmarks of the nationwide Occupy protests. The difference between Occupy and "The Exit" in Venezuela is that Occupy was never about overthrowing the government, but rather an attempt to gain more democratic participation and social justice for people who feel their voice has been overpowered by wealthy corporations and individual campaign donors.

How did the government react? By arresting nearly 8,000 people and criminally prosecuting many of them.

Earlier this month, Cecily McMillan was handed a felony assault conviction stemming from an Occupy protest in 2012. The 25-year-old student claims she was sexually assaulted by a police officer who viciously grabbed her breast. She says she then reacted instinctively to the assault, elbowing the officer in the eye. This led to the assault charge against her.

"The decision highlights the workings of a criminal justice system bent on chilling dissent and defending the status quo," writes Natasha Lennard in Vice News. "McMillan's conviction offers an unambiguous answer to that popular and rhetorical chant levied at police lines during Occupy protests: 'Who do you protect? Who do you serve?' The court's reply is clear: systems of power and their NYPD guardians will be coddled with impunity, while protesters will be beaten, broken and jailed." 

Recently a New York Times investigation discovered that during a nearly 20-year period, F.B.I. agents were found to be justified in each of the 150 shootings they were involved in. The investigation was launched in the wake of what evidence suggests was a possible execution style killing of Ibragim Todashev, who was shot repeatedly in the back. The official F.B.I. account was changed multiple times before the shooting was deemed justified.

Similar incidents of local law enforcement acting with impunity have occurred repeatedly - in Oakland,  New Mexico, Jersey City and New York City to name a few. 

This seems to be a symptom of the almost complete discretion granted to law enforcement in the U.S., expanded and amplified since the beginning of the War on Drugs in the early 1980s. There has been an almost complete shredding of the 4th amendment "right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." This right now seems to be no more than a fantasy, the new law of the land being anything goes for police. 

Shortly after the State Department's condemnation of the Venezuelan government, Israeli occupation forces killed two Palestinian teens marching in the West Bank to demonstrate on the anniversary of the Nakba, the campaign of terror and violence by Zionist militias that drove 750,000 indigenous Arabs from their homes and their land in 1948.

There was no official statement condemning this - much less the illegal occupation itself, where Palestinians have been subjected to military law since 1967. If the U.S. government does truly care about the civil  rights of people across the globe, why are all foreign government not held equally accountable?

One can't help but wonder if it is not really the conduct itself that bothers the U.S. government, but their political relationship with the country in question. Are governments who challenge U.S. hegemony singled out? Are accusations leveled to give opposition protesters within these countries implicit backing, encouraging them to go further, in the hopes of inciting a forceful government response the U.S. government can then condemn?

Obama campaigned promising a break from the past, pledging to "strengthen civil rights." He framed the struggle for justice as a continuation of the struggle culminating in the Civil Rights Act, and promised that "we have more work to do." Voters who backed Obama took his words at face value, and thought he might actually lead the country in a new direction.

When Obama came to office, he inherited a civil rights disaster. He was not responsible for 7.5 million people - the vast majority minorities - in the U.S. corrections system, or 4 million second-class citizens in the U.S. colonies. He didn't start the un-winnable wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the wars against terrorism or drugs. He didn't open the concentration camp on stolen land in Cuba or start warrantless spying on U.S. citizens. 

But for someone who promised change from the broken policies so many people were eager to leave behind, five years should be enough time to start seeing evidence of a new era. But this has not materialized.

The Obama administration has used the full force of the criminal justice system against political opponents, imprisoning human rights lawyers like Lynne Stewartwhistle blowers like Chelsea Manning and Jeremy Hammond; journalists like Barrett Brown; non-profits like the Holy Land Foundation; and peaceful political activists like Cecily McMillan.

Dozens more have been threatened with prosecution for reporting on and bringing to light government abuses, especially Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Journalist James Risen has been threatened with jail time unless he reveals a confidential source, and Glenn Greenwald has been slandered and smeared as a criminal "accomplice" and worse. 

Meanwhile, administration officials who commit felonies by lying to Congress and selectively leaking classified information go free. As long as officials stick to the party line when leaking information to the press, it seems they have no need to fear prosecution. 

But to prevent legitimate political debate, the most redacted administration in history continues to crack down and take secrecy to new levels.

"By criminalizing free speech and turning dissidents into felons, they achieve exactly that which the First Amendment, above all else, was designed to prohibit," writes Glenn Greenwald.

Illegal surveillance and law enforcement activity has been common at least since J. Edgar Hoover led the FBI. The massive Operation COINTELPRO, which targeted anti-war, civil rights, came to light during the Church Committee hearings. The FBI promised to stop such practices and prevent them from happening again. But what really happened is the same mindset persisted while the techniques evolved.

They are still present today in secret programs like the NYPD's "Demographics Unit", whose task was spying on Muslims. Thousands of officers and millions of dollars were wasted on an operation based on no threat that did not lead to a single terrorism investigation

The principle is the same. Criminal activity is defined by a person's race, religion, or political affiliation, not by crime itself. Black people are drug criminals by definition, as Michelle Alexander explains in her groundbreaking book "The New Jim Crow." 

The War on Drugs is enforced almost entirely against African Americans, despite the fact that their drug use occurs at a nearly identical rate as whites. Discriminatory policies lead to blacks being jailed in record numbers, which is then used as evidence of their criminality. It is a Catch-22.

In the same way, Muslims are terrorists. Progressives are dangerous subversives. When the facts don't cooperate with reality, you make them.

Rick Perlstein describes the tactic of entrapping people and presenting them as dangerous terrorists because it was decided their ideas were too radical and outside mainstream political discourse.

"They are arrogating to themselves a downright Orwellian power – the power to deploy the might of the State to shape a fundamental narrative about which ideas Americans must be most scared of, and which ones they should not fear much at all, independent of the relative objective dangerousness of the people who hold those ideas," Perlstein writes.

Meanwhile the Obama administration projects onto its political enemies the same things that it refuses to see - or chooses to ignore - in itself. Somehow "we" are the guardians of "American values" and freedom, while "they" - in Venezuela, Cuba, or Russia - are nothing more than thugs and criminals who have no respect for rights or the rule of law. 

The Obama administration would do well to recognize the President's campaign promises to strengthen civil rights and its failure to meaningfully deliver on them. Until they do, why should their statements on civil rights in Venezuela or anywhere else have any credibility? 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Oscar López Rivera: The Invisible Man and His Invisible Nation

Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs.”
President Barack Obama

"But one prisoner remains, now a vivid reminder of the ongoing inequality that colonialism and empire building inevitably bring forth. After more than thirty years, Oscar López Rivera is imprisoned for the 'crime' of seditious conspiracy: conspiracy to free his people from the shackles of imperial justice.”

If you ask any American what is the first thing they think of when they hear the term "political prisoner," almost everyone will say Nelson Mandela. To the millions who witnessed Mandela leading the South African liberation struggle and those who were born in its aftermath, Mandela has become a symbol of resistance to the worst form of political repression. The 27 years he spent imprisoned in Robben Island are an almost unimaginable punishment to people in the West, who like to think that nothing remotely similar could happen at home. Meanwhile, in a prison cell in Terre Haute, Indiana, out of the media spotlight and the history books, Oscar López Rivera today, May 29, marks his 33rd year spent behind bars (12 in solitary confinement) as a political prisoner of the U.S. government for a nearly identical "crime" and a nearly identical cause.

López holds the distinction of being the longest-serving Puerto Rican political prisoner ever. He has already served 6 more years than Mandela. At 71 years old, he is not scheduled to be released for another 10 years. Convicted of "seditious conspiracy," trying to overthrow the U.S. government by force, López was imprisoned for the same charge as Mandela. Although the government implied he was part of FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña), a Puerto Rico nationalist organization, he was never accused of any acts of violence that killed or injured anyone.

The 55 year prison sentence handed down to López was egregiously excessive. For comparison, in the mid '90s, the average time spent in prison by people convicted of violent felonies was four years; for those convicted of murder or manslaughter it was 10 years.

To Puerto Ricans and those who belong to the Puerto Rican diaspora in the States, the cause of justice for Oscar López has become a nearly unanimous and ubiquitous pursuit. Tens of thousands gathered in San Juan to demand López's release in November. Marches now take place weekly all over the island. There have been popular demonstrations that included musicians, athletes and politicians engaging in a symbolic lock up to bring attention to López's cause. Ricky Martin made a public plea at the Latin Grammy's and boxer Felix Verdejo did the same before his latest fight. Popular recording artist Rene Perez, better known as Calle 13, has been vocal in his support for López's cause.

President Obama has recently received letters appealing for him to pardon López from fellow Nobel Peace Laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Máiread Corrigan Maguire and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel; from Pedro Pierluisi, the sole Puerto Rican (non-voting) member of Congress and from Puerto Rican governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla.  Florida Representative Alan Grayson, spurred on by public outrage among the Puerto Rican community in his district, petitioned Obama for López's release in January. Earlier this month José "Pepe" Mujica, President of Uruguay, called on Obama to free López during their meeting at the White House. 

Yet in the States it is as if López does not even exist. Obama has never publicly responded to the pleas from human rights activists, politicians, celebrities, or the hundreds of thousands of average citizens who have made their voice heard on the streets and on social media.  While Arab Spring protests were national news, an equally large movement of U.S. citizens is invisible to the rest of the U.S. population. 

When he gave his eulogy for Mandela, Obama proclaimed that, "We, too, must act on behalf of justice." Presented with an opportunity to fulfill his pledge, Obama has instead chosen the convenience of indifference. What matters is not how Mandela was eulogized, but how he was judged in the moment. It is easy to talk about justice in a case that history has already decided long ago.

"I wonder if you would be interested in imbuing your presidency with historical significance in the form of a direct action to assuage this injustice perpetrated by the American government," writes Guillermo Rebollo-Gil in 80grados. "Students at the march [in San Juan] were chanting in unison: 'Obama can’t talk about freedom, if he keeps brother Oscar incarcerated.' Thousands upon thousands agreed. And now I am tempted to ask, can you?"

Everyone now accepts that South Africa was an apartheid state. Whites created a racial caste system that denied blacks political and social rights while institutionalizing economic oppression. South Africa of the 1950's in many ways resembled the U.S. South at the same time. In both cases, white supremacy was defended hysterically, above all other political considerations. 

Up until the bitter end, the United States government defended the apartheid regime in South Africa. Ronald Reagan, who declared Mandela's African National Congress a terrorist organization, called South Africa "a country that is strategically essential to the free world" in 1981. Previous administrations backed the white South African army as they invaded neighboring Angola to suppress that nation's liberation movement to achieve freedom from colonial rule. While apartheid now is universally accepted as an atrocity and a crime against humanity, it is important to remember that was not always the case.

The measure of a leader's courage is whether he fights for social justice when he can make a difference, not what he says in hindsight decades later. If President Obama were the judge who Mandela stood before in Rivonia, would Obama have dared to reject the accepted legitimacy of South Africa's political system, as he might like to believe, or would he, like Reagan, dismiss Mandela as a "terrorist"? Based on his actions as President, it is hard to believe that Obama would have had the courage to see Mandela's struggle as the fight for justice we all now recognize that it was. 

When it comes to Puerto Rico, Obama has not even bothered to acknowledge the monumental referendum in which the Puerto Rican people decisively rejected the current colonial status they have been subjected to for 115 years. The most Obama has done is include a few million dollars in his budget for the Puerto Rican electoral commission to hold another non-binding vote. He has not spoken at all about ensuring Puerto Rico's will is carried out by achieving first-class status, either as its own nation or as part of the United States.

Residents of Puerto Rico and the other U.S. colonies (Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands) have no vote in Presidential elections, nor any representation in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. They have no voice in making the policies they are subjected to under Article 6 of the Constitution, which they never agreed to. Economically, Puerto Rico is completely dependent on the United States. Puerto Rico imports 85% of its foodstuffs. To this day, efforts to create self-sufficiency are being undermined by U.S. laws imposed on Puerto Rico without their consent.

The result is what Judge Juan Torruella of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has called "political apartheid, which continues in full vigor." Torruella, a Puerto Rican native and Reagan appointee, writes eloquently of the similarities between the "Separate but Equal" status endorsed in Plessy vs. Ferguson  and the "Separate and Unequal" status endorsed in the Insular Cases.

If there is any doubt how Puerto Rico has fared as a colony, one simple statistic illustrates the point: the average income in Puerto Rico ($18,660) is 50% less than the poorest state (Mississippi), and 65% less than the national average. In many ways, there is little difference - either politically or economically - between Puerto Ricans today and black South Africans until the end of apartheid.

When it concerned another government, somewhere else, Obama could praise Mandela for challenging the oppressive system he faced, saying Mandela turned his trial into "an indictment of apartheid." Just like Mandela, López made a similar argument in his own defense, admitting his fight against the structure of the colonial system oppressing Puerto Rico. 

"The United States government will not say that international organizations have determined that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States and that, according to international law, they are committing a crime against my country," López said. 

This appears to be a crime Obama is not willing to admit, much less challenge. The longer Obama maintains his silence, the larger the calls for justice for López grow. Puerto Ricans who oppose colonialism but have historically disagreed politically otherwise have found common cause in demanding López's freedom. And this movement may serve as a catalyst to achieve the political change López has sacrificed 33 years of his life for: ending apartheid in Puerto Rico. 

In the end Obama's legacy will be not as the transformational political leader he promised to be, but rather as the President who pretended to support social  justice while working behind the scenes to ensure it was never achieved.

Someday if Oscar López's nation of Puerto Rico achieves liberation, López may wind up becoming the symbol of struggle against injustice that Mandela is today. The United States under Barack Obama, like South Africa decades earlier, will be the symbol of political repression.




Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Kerry's Flap Should Prompt Reflection

If the vast majority of Americans are still in denial that Israel is an apartheid state (which it has been for 47 years), how long will it take them to realize the U.S. is - and has been since its founding - an apartheid state due to its constitutional endorsement of slavery, segregation, and for the last 115 years until this day, "Separate and Unequal" treatment of 4 million residents of the U.S.'s colonies?

The firestorm over Israeli apartheid started when reports surfaced that Secretary of State John Kerry said in a private meeting that Israel risks becoming "becoming an apartheid state" if it continues on it's current course. 

The Israeli political lobby quickly set their attack dogs in motion to deny, deny, deny. "Any linkage between Israel and apartheid is nonsensical and ridiculous," wrote "progressive" Senator Barbara Boxer on Twitter. The Anti-Defamation League was "startled and disappointed" over "such an inaccurate and incendiary term."

Facing hysterical outrage from apologists of the Middle East's only state to have never joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Kerry quickly cowered and walked back his statement, saying he chose the "wrong wording". His retraction echoed Obama's own statements on the issue, when he came out against "injecting a term like apartheid" that is "historically inaccurate." 

Of course, Israel has been an apartheid state since 1967. How else to describe a socioeconomic system in the occupied territories under Israeli sovereignty where residents of one ethnicity are subject to military law while residents of another to civilian law? Where there is complete separation of land and roads, which a principal architect of the settler colonies in the occupied territories (and admirer of South Africa's racist segregation) modeled after the Bantustans he saw in that country?

Inside the Green Line, Israel can make the dubious claim that laws like the Prevention of Infiltration Law, Citizenship and Entry Law and Acceptance to Communities Law, as well as institutions such as the Jewish National Fund, do not actually constitute the crime of apartheid, but merely legalized discrimination and racial supremacy.

Lost in this discussion (if you can call it that) is the system of apartheid ongoing in the United States itself.

At it's inception, the U.S. Constitution - which deprived average citizens of the right to elect the President and Senators, who held the true policy making power - applied only to landowning white males. Since the beginning, the United States has been an apartheid state.

You could argue that after the Civil War and the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments (while women were still unable to vote) the U.S. was able to shed its apartheid status. But in reality slavery continued virtually unabated in the South for another century through a system of involuntary labor and convict leasing in many ways as bad or worse than antebellum slavery, as described by Douglas Blackmon in his thoroughly documented book Slavery by Another Name.

The nation's discriminatory racial system was certified by the Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson. This would persist into the Post-War period until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1963. At this point, most people would believe the U.S.'s apartheid system had finally been abolished.

In reality, since the U.S.'s colonial adventures began in 1898 an apartheid state persists which, unlike the system inside the continental U.S., doesn't even disingenuously claim to be "Separate But Equal". It is the "Separate and Unequal" status granted to residents of U.S. colonies. The vast majority reside in Puerto Rico but also include residents of Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Insular Cases, which determined Puerto Rico and other territories belong to but are not part of the United States, represent the Supreme Court demonstrating "an unabashed reflection of contemporaneous politics, rather than the pursuit of legal doctrine," writes federal judge Juan R. Torruella, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. "As in the instance of the legal framework established by Plessy, the Insular Cases have had lasting and deleterious effects on a substantial minority of citizens. The 'redeeming' difference is that Plessy is no longer the law of the land, while the Supreme Court remains aloof about the repercussions of its actions in deciding the Insular Cases as it did, including the fact that these cases are responsible for the establishment of a regime of de facto political apartheid, which continues in full vigor."

Since the early days of the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico, American corporations happily exploited the island's population and resources to make vast fortunes from privatized sugar and coffee plantations, which they promptly shipped off the island and into their bank accounts on the mainland. Later, the U.S. directed a revolutionary transformation of Puerto Rico's agricultural economy into a large-scale industrial economy that further lined the pockets of large corporations without delivering lasting benefits to the island's residents. To this day, U.S. colonialism continues to suppress Puerto Rico's self-sufficiency by preventing it from developing its own industries and creating sustainable food sources.

All of this for the last 115 years without the consent of the governed.

Puerto Ricans spoke decisively against their political status in a referendum in 2012, with 54% of voters rejecting the political status they have been subjected to for 115 years. What they heard in response were crickets.

Kerry's comments should be forcing Americans to look not just abroad at apartheid in Palestine, funded by their tax dollars, but also in the mirror to recognize apartheid at home. So far any reflection on American complicity in crimes against humanity is nonexistent.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

ZunZuneo and the U.S. Policy of Destabiliziation in Latin America

News from the AP about the U.S. government's secret project to create a Cuban Twitter or "ZunZuneo," to be used for disseminating propaganda and fomenting unrest in Cuba, spurring young people in that country to overthrow their government, comes as no surprise to anyone with even the most cursory understanding of U.S. policy in Cuba and Latin America in general. It is but a tiny part of a 55-year-old, completely unprovoked, genocidal policy against a nation whose only offense is failing to subordinate itself to the will of the U.S. government. 

ZunZuneo was initiated and run by the ostensibly "humanitarian" U.S. Agency for International Development through a series of shell corporations which were not supposed to be traced back to the government agency. The project is typical subversive interference the U.S. government has always felt entitled to carry out, in spite of the rights of sovereignty and self-determination fundamental to international law. 

Due to Cuba's successful revolution in 1959 and their ongoing ability to withstand U.S. sabotage of their socioeconomic system, U.S. actions against the tiny nation in the Carribean have been more harsh than any other victim who fails to recognize the U.S. as its rightful master. Early criminal aggression included a vicious campaign of terrorism against Cuba, part of a massive CIA effort that later evolved into a policy of providing safe haven to terrorist exile groups and looking the other way as they violate the U.S. Neutrality Act and international law. 

The largest act of aggression is, of course, the U.S. blockade against Cuba, euphemistically known in the U.S. as an "embargo." The blockade has now lasted more than a half century as punishment for Cuba's achievement of self-determination. The blockade is an act of warfare, based on the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 (TWEA), which is only applicable during times of war. It has been expanded and strengthened over the years with various violations of international law such as the Helms-Burton Act and the Torricelli Act. The policy has been found to be an illegal violation of international law for 22 straight years by 99% of the world's nations, who have demanded its end. 

U.S. government destabilization of a country's political system is not unique to Cuba, nor is it unique to USAID. Other U.S. government agencies, such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), have long carried out similar criminal covert actions that are supposed to be in hidden in the domain of the CIA. Such organizations purport to be apolitical groups for "democracy" promotion but are in reality nothing more than political action committees (PACs). Due to the concealment of their purpose, they are more like slush funds used to advanced the perceived interests of the United States. 

Of course, agencies such as USAID are not used to promote American "values" or "humanitarian" principles with abstract names like "freedom", but the interests of the corporate sector eager to seek new investment opportunities outside their own country and control over the resources that they refuse to recognize as the property of local populations. 

For example, over the last 15 years in Venezuela the U.S. agencies spent $90 million funding opposition groups, including $5 million in the current federal budget. During this time, since Hugo Chavez first assumed office, his revolutionary party has won 18 elections and lost only 1. The margins of victory during Chavez's tenure reached higher than 20%. After his death, his hand-picked successor Nicolás Maduro won by a margin of 1.6% in 2012. This is a very narrow margin, to be sure, but as Dan Kovalik points out it is a margin of victory larger than JFK's victory over Richard Nixon and certainly larger than George Bush's "victory" over Al Gore in which Bush actually lost the vote. 

Despite the success of the Chavista party, the opposition, aided and abetted by the U.S. government, has tried to portray the elections as "questionable" or "illegitimate". Secretary of State John Kerry led the way by calling for a recount, encouraging the opposition to challenge the election results and creating an atmosphere of distrust and defiance conducive to a violent anti-democratic challenge.

"Washington's efforts to de-legitimise the election mark a significant escalation of US efforts at regime change in Venezuela," wrote Mark Weisbrot. "Not since its involvement in the 2002 military coup has the US government done this much to promote open conflict in Venezuela... It amounted to telling the government of Venezuela what was necessary to make their elections legitimate."

In fact, international organizations monitoring the Venezuelan Presidential vote attested to the "fair and transparent" election process and former President Jimmy Carter called the country's electoral system "the best in the world."

The U.S. government has also refused to recognize the vast advances social progress made under the current government. Under Chavez, the country drastically reduced poverty, especially extreme poverty, with the latter falling from 23.4% in 1999 to 8.5% in 2011. As the government has put its massive revenues from oil sales to use to provide universal education and health care for all Venezuela's citizens, people traditionally shut out of the country's economic gains have benefited tremendously. Venezuela has gone from one of the highest rates of income inequality in Latin America to the lowest, a truly Herculean accomplishment.

Yet this does not even factor into the U.S.'s policy toward Venezuela. A cable published by Wikileaks from 2006 demonstrates the U.S. policy of destabilization and regime change against Hugo Chavez during the height of his national popularity. Now, with the perceived weakness of Maduro and the propaganda success of portraying violent street protests as a "peaceful student movement" in the international media, it seems that Kerry is like a shark who smells blood in the water when he slanderously proclaims a "terror campaign" and foments further unrest. 

U.S. government officials must feel genuinely embittered at their inability to impose subservience on the government of Venezuela, who represent a majority of voters of that country. After all, it has proven much easier in countries such as Honduras to oust a democratically elected President.

"[President Manuel] Zelaya was initiating such dangerous measures as a rise in minimum wage in a country where 60 percent live in poverty. He had to go," wrote Noam Chomsky, who goes on to note that the U.S. virtually alone in the world in recognizing the "elections" later held under military rule of Pepe Lobo. "The endorsement also preserved the use of Honduras' Palmerola air base, increasingly valuable as the U.S. military is being driven out of most of Latin America."

Unsurprisingly, four years after the coup a Center for Economic and Policy Research report finds that "much of the economic and social progress experienced from 2006 - 2009 has been reversed in the years since," with "economic inequality in Honduras" rising "dramatically." 

The next success of the Obama administration in Latin America was the coup in Paraguay, in which the right-wing, elite opposition was able to drive democratically-elected Fernando Lugo from the Presidency and thus stop his program of promoting land rights for a long-oppressed peasant population.

"The United States promotes the interests of the wealthy of these mostly-poor countries, and in turn, these elite-run countries are obedient to the pro-corporate foreign policy of the United States," writes Shamus Cooke.

Last year a coup was carried out against the progressive mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Gustavo Petro. His supposed abuse of power was de-privatizing garbage collection in the capital city, which allegedly harmed the "freedom of free enterprise." The anti-democratic actions in Colombia, a beneficiary of an enormous amount of U.S. aid, have not negatively affected the U.S. policy toward the nation. Kovalik notes that the actions taken against Petro are part of a much larger pattern.

"While the press, as well as the U.S. government, will not acknowledge it, the elimination of progressive political leaders by coup d' état is taking place in Latin America with increasing frequency," Kovalik writes

Of course this is part of long-standing U.S. policy that has destroyed democracies in countries such as Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and many other nations since the end of WWII alone. The anti-democratic measures enabled, supported and usually funded by the U.S., have taken decades to recover from.

Media reporting of the ZunZuneo story has tended to downplay or apologize for the Cuban Twitter program by stressing U.S. government denials that it was meant to overthrow the government, or giving credence to claims that it was beneficial in allowing Cubans to communicate with each other.

Not surprisingly, Cubans themselves do not see it this way. They understandably do not appreciate an underhanded attempt to collect their personal data or to use them as pawns in a political game against their government. 

This should be a reasonable position for any American to understand. Would you support China or Russia setting up a social network meant to overthrow your government, so they could bring in one more to their liking? Certainly not. The plot in the fictitious House of Cards of infiltration of the U.S. political process by foreign money probably seems shocking to the average American. In this country, it is a crime for foreign agents or nationals to influence the domestic political process through campaign contributions. 

In reality, this is exactly what the U.S. government has done hundreds of times over in foreign countries for decades. ZunZuneo is demonstrable proof they continue to do so to this day. ZunZuneo is not just a case of USAID and the U.S. government getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar. It is part of an ongoing assault against the sovereignty and self-determination of any country who opposes U.S. foreign policy. People of other countries are just as smart, capable, and deserving of a government independent of outside interference as U.S. citizens are. 

The U.S. government has no business sticking its nose in other countries' political affairs.  By demanding that their government stop doing so, Americans could do more to advance democracy and the ideals their country claims to represent than the U.S. government has ever done.